British MPs ‘alarmed’ at police using biometric data
16 March 2015 11:33 GMT

Privacy was noted as a particular area of concern by the MPs.

A British parliamentary committee tasked with looking into the implications of biometric technology has recommended that the government strengthen regulation and develop a strategy on the technology’s growing usage, including giving a commissioner new powers over a facial recognition controversy.

Published on 7 March, a report developed by Commons Science and Technology Committee on the current and future uses of biometric data noted a  “worrying” lack of government oversight and regulation of aspects of the field.

For instance, the committee said it was “alarmed” that the British police had begun uploading custody photographs of people to a Police National Database and using facial recognition software on the images without any regulatory oversight.

“When biometric systems are employed by the state in ways that impact upon citizens’ civil liberties, it is imperative that they are accurate and dependable”, said the committee, calling for stronger regulation and a broader jurisdiction for the Biometrics Commissioner.

Mugshot controversy

Alastair MacGregor, Biometrics Commissioner, had revealed in February that a policeman had told him that 12 million-plus custody photographs had been uploaded to the Police National Database and that facial recognition software being applied to them.

The committee said the case highlights that MacGregor’s jurisdiction should be broadened to include the police use and retention of facial images – currently his remit only covers DNA and fingerprints.

Last July, Leicestershire Police launched trials with face recognition software. Supplied by NEC, the NeoFace system is capable of comparing any digital image - such as CCTV or police body camera footage - with any photo held on the Leicestershire Police database.

The forensics and biometric policy group should also be reconstituted with a clearer mandate to analyse how developments in biometrics may compromise the effectiveness of current policy and legislation.

“Any agency or organization deploying new technology that can impact the public’s privacy needs to exercise rigorous transparency so as to foster a healthy amount of trust,” Elke Oberg, Marketing Manager of Cognitec Systems, said in an International Biometrics and Identification Association response to the facial recognition controversy.

The IBIA ”strongly supports the responsible use of facial recognition in law enforcement in protecting public safety and positive discourse and open communication to ensure its effective and responsible use”, added the body.

Need for strategy

The Commons Science and Technology Committee now expects a comprehensive, cross-departmental forensics and biometrics strategy to be published by the UK government no later than December 2015. 

It had launched the inquiry last August, with the aim of uncovering challenges facing both government and industry in developing, implementing and regulating the tech.

“Despite growth in commercial and Government applications of biometrics, the Government appears to have made little effort to engage with the public regarding the increasing use of their biometric data, and what this means for them … [The] continuing lack of transparency in the delivery of scientific advice to Government on biometrics is unacceptable”.

Privacy was noted as a particular area of concern by the MPs, with worries raised that companies are not explaining to individuals their plans for the use of biometric data.

“Privacy impact assessments should be conducted at the outset of all projects and policies that collect, retain or process personal data, including biometric data.

Dr Simon Rice, Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), clarified that the “standard in the Data Protection Act is that appropriate security measures must be taken”, adding the “ideal” was that:

“If that biometric data is breached in some way, it should not matter to the individual. You should be able to re-enrol a person with a new biometric, and that template should not be able to be used in some other kind of system to
gain access”.


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