Biometrics Commissioner raises police face database fears
30 November 2015 10:56 GMT

LONDON - A proper regulatory regime is needed to cover the manner in which police use facial images, according to Alastair MacGregor, UK Biometrics Commissioner. However, senior police stress that the system is vital to keep the public safe.

MacGregor outlined at the Biometrics 2015 conference in London that he awaits the result of a government review into procedural use of facial recognition, after he last year raised concerns over the police’s use of facial databases.

Last December, he revealed that some 18 million images had been uploaded to a police database – including some people who had never been charged.

Speaking on Tuesday, MacGregor said that the prospect of this database being linked to CCTV cameras had been a major source of his concern.

Noting that the potential integration of the database and CCTV systems would enable the government to easily launch massive searches simply by pressing "enter" - he warned: “Even the most surveillance-minded nations need to work hard to maintain this."

The commissioner noted that there were additional risks of “function creep”, given the level of control created by such a system, adding that the police had established the system “with the best of intentions but no public disclosure whatsoever”.

MacGregor said he also had concerns about the reliability of the technology.

He said there were “widespread concerns” over the storage of facial images and that the matter was of urgency – adding that if not addressed it could undermine what could be a hugely valuable tool.

Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, said on the topic: “This is about reputational damage for an entire technology – facial recognition. It is important that privacy mistakes don’t undermine the benefits of what could be a great tool. The dangers of function creep must be understood by the practitioners.”

However, Mike Barton, National Policing Lead for the Police National Database (PND), Intelligence and Use of Facial Images, and Chief Constable, Durham Constabulary, gave a resolute rejection of criticism over the police’s handling of the database.

“Parliament decided that facial images would not be in the data protection act – the reason we decided to turn that database on was Soham,” said Barton, referring to the double murder of two young girls in the Cambridgeshire village in 2002.

He said that following those murders, the police were criticised for not sharing information of potentially dangerous people – in that case the murderer Ian Huntley.

“You need to understand that we have a duty to tackle dangerous people,” he said. “I think it is vital we reflect public concern but let’s not rewrite history – if we don’t keep people safe then young people can get murdered. Let’s not let Hollywood shape this debate. I have no time or motivation to invade people’s privacy if they haven’t offended.”

Planet Biometrics reported last week that Britain’s government had extended the timeframe for a review into which biometric samples, including DNA, can be retained by the authorities.

In a legislation document revealed on 6 October, the government stated that its Protection Of Freedoms Act 2012 covering Destruction, Retention And Use Of Biometric Data was to be extended for a year.

The extension is necessary because London’s police service has not finished a review of the biometric material - and it is concerned that some material may impact on national security issues, said the government.