UK police slammed over face recognition database
14 September 2017 13:54 GMT

UK Biometrics commissioner Paul Wiles has said that a facial-recognition database held by UK police could lead to false intelligence and wrongful allegations of innocent people.

Wiles said that the database had now reached has exceeded 19 million images, warning that it has function creep has also seen it used for reasons that far exceeded its original purposes.

In his annual report, Wiles wrote:

“The use of facial images by the police has gone far beyond using them for custody purposes,” he writes. “In July 2016 there were 19 million facial images on the Police National Database (PND), 16,644,143 of which had been enrolled in the facial image recognition gallery and were (and remain) searchable using facial recognition software, although it is not clear how many of these are duplicate images or which relate to unconvicted persons.

“In addition, not all forces are uploading images to PND, including the [Metropolitan Police Service] MPS who hold their own extensive collection, so 19 million is an underestimate.”

He used the example of Notting Hill Carnival, where revellers were being scanned as they made their way around the festival and then checked against a watch list.

A High Court ruling in 2012 made it unlawful for police to retain images of individuals they had arrested or questioned but had not charged or convicted of an offense. In his report, Wiles laments that five years after that ruling, “we still do not have a clear policy in operation to correct that situation”.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think it's very worrying because if we're not careful the public will lose confidence in the police."

Civil society has also taken aim at the report's findings.

The report admits that facial images have been used throughout the history of policing, but the ability to store digital images on a searchable database, and the scope to rollout facial recognition technology in public places, is a new concern. Wiles notes that, as well as facial recognition, a new wave of biometrics also includes voice recognition and iris, gait and vein analysis.

Privacy advocacy group, The Big Brother Watch, said it welcomed the Biometric Commissioner’s warnings and concerns:

“It is of very serious concern that the Home Office appear to be so unwaveringly set on embedding facial biometric recognition technology into policing without debate, regulation, legislation or independent scrutiny,” Renate Samson, the group’s chief executive, told the Guardian. 

“Rather than throwing millions of pounds  at the building of such intrusive capabilities, the Home Office should be investing in updating police IT systems to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of innocent people’s custody images and facial biometrics are deleted automatically as soon as they are released without charge, bringing them into line with DNA and fingerprints.”

In a government review published in February, the Home Office concluded that those who are not convicted have the right to request that their custody image is deleted from all police databases. Meanwhile, a High Court ruling in 2012 said retaining the custody images of unconvicted people amounted to a breach of human rights.