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Biometrics strategy

A ‘ single biometrics platform’ at the Home Office is proposed in the department’s newly published ‘Biometrics Strategy’ about its use of such technology. It proposes to ‘seize opportunities to use biometrics across the Criminal Justice System to verify identity and identify individuals’ and use facial matching to verify people entering at ports and airports.

The Home Office described the document as setting out the overarching framework within which organisations in the Home Office sector will consider and make decisions on use and development of such technology. In a foreword, Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford noted the ‘rapidly changing nature’ of biometrics. Instead of ad hoc ‘development of parallel information technology systems’, including separate fingerprint ones for visas and policing, the Home Office proposes a ‘more consistent, centralised development’, and ‘a more consistent approach to retention’.

The document sees ‘opportunities to extend access to biometric data such as fingerprints, across the Criminal Justice System. For example, the Home Office is working with HM Prison and Probation Service to explore the benefits of biometric mobile identification applications for electronic monitoring and the use of fingerprint scanners in prison receptions’.

According to the document, the most commonly used forms of biometric are Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), fingerprints and face. The document acknowledges: “They can also raise significant issues of public trust in the organisations that use them.” As for which sort is appropriate for which use, the document says that ‘processing a passport application is very different from crime scene DNA collection’. For the 27-page strategy document in full visit gov.uk.

Comment

Paul Wiles, Biometrics Commissioner, while welcoming the strategy ‘as the basis for a more informed public debate’, wished for more detail, calling for ‘a governance framework that will cover all future biometrics rather than a series of ad hoc responses to problems as they emerge’. He said: “The strategy lays out the current uses of biometric data and the development of new multi-user data platforms. Unfortunately the strategy says little about what future plans the Home Office has for the use of biometrics and the sharing of biometric data. A debate is needed given the rapid improvements in biometric matching technologies and the increasing ability to hold and analyse large biometric databases.

“While the use of biometric data may well be in the public interest for law enforcement purposes and to support other government functions the public benefit must be balanced against loss of privacy. Biometric data is especially sensitive because it is most intrusive of our individual privacy and for that reason who decides the balance is as important as what is decided. Legislation carries the legitimacy that Parliament decides that crucial question.

“It is disappointing that the Home Office document is not forward looking as one would expect from a strategy. In particular it does not propose legislation to provide rules for the use and oversight of new biometrics, including facial images. This is in contrast to Scotland where such legislation has been proposed.”

His role under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 is to have oversight of the retention and use by the police in England and Wales of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints.

The civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch (BBW) has meanwhile condemned what it calls ‘the unlawful growth of facial recognition’ by UK police forces. BBW Director Silkie Carlo described the Home Office strategy as ‘a major disappointment’. She said: “After five years of waiting, it reads like a late piece of homework with a remarkable lack of any strategy.

While Big Brother Watch and others are doing serious work to analyse the rights impact of the growing use of biometrics, the Home Office appears to lack either the will or competence to take the issues seriously. For a government that is building some of the biggest biometric databases in the world, this is alarming.

Meanwhile, the Met today is surveilling Londoners with facial recognition cameras that they have no legal basis to even use. The situation is disastrously out of control. Anyone concerned should support our CrowdJustice campaign to put an end to lawless facial recognition in the courts.”

BBW has made a legal challenge to the Metropolitan Police’s use of real-time facial recognition cameras; Silkie Carlo calling such cameras ‘dangerously authoritarian’ and ‘hopelessly inaccurate’ that ‘risk turning members of the public into walking ID cards’.

And a Cardiff man, represented by civil liberties campaigners Liberty, has been given the go-ahead to start a legal challenge to South Wales Police’s use of automated facial recognition (AFR), for example in use at the Biggest Weekend music festival in May in Swansea.

Picture by Mark Rowe; street art, London.


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