UK.gov delays biometrics strategy again – but cops will still use the tech

Tech's too 'fast moving' for framework, but not for slurping your face

The Home Office has admitted the UK’s biometrics strategy won't be published until next year, as MPs slam an "unacceptable" delay of more than five years.

The Home Office has repeatedly put off publishing the strategy it promised in 2012, and has come under fire from MPs, policymakers, civil rights groups, the biometrics commissioner.

In response to the latest request for a status update from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford admitted the strategy was still not finished.

“It will unfortunately not be possible to publish the strategy until next year,” she wrote in a letter (PDF) to committee chair Norman Lamb, after admitting she was aware that publication “has taken much longer than we originally indicated”.

Williams said that “a great deal of work” had been done, while attempting to justify the delay by saying that the strategy had a wide scope and covered a rapidly advancing field.

“[The strategy] ranges across many areas of policy, some of which are developing rapidly,” she said.

“After reviewing it carefully, I have decided that it cannot be finalised until further work has been done in some of these areas.”

But Lamb told The Register that this was “unacceptable”, pointing out that the fact the technology is already being used – the police have used it at the last two Notting Hill Carnivals – should be reason to push out a strategy sooner.

“The fact it’s developing rapidly makes the case for why it needs a strategy,” he said. “The tech is being used so that’s why you need a clear ethical and legal framework, and we don’t have that – and that’s intolerable.”

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Williams acknowledged that the police were already using the tech, and said that – in lieu of the strategy – she would fill the MPs in on the “government’s policy” on it.

However, this was a brief description saying the “decision to deploy facial recognition systems is an operational one for the police”, while pointing to this year’s Custody Image Review for information on retention of custody images.

She also said that the government felt facial recognition “plays an important role in the detection and prevention of crime” – despite reports that the tech had led to someone being incorrectly targeted at this year’s Carnival.

Williams also noted that there was “independent ethical oversight” in the form of the extended remit of the National DNA Database Ethics Group – now the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group.

But civil rights group Big Brother Watch said that, although it welcomed the group’s oversight, “without any outlined legislation or regulation, oversight is little more than marking homework”.

It added: “Proper oversight and scrutiny of these powers can only be achieved if the powers are clearly defined, outlined, drafted and debated as legislative or regulatory issues.”

Lamb said that the committee was now pushing the Home Office to find out exactly what the government meant by “next year” and why there had been such severe delays. ®

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