Breaking news: BBC FINALLY spots millions of mugshots on cop database

Wakey wakey, Auntie. It's not just iPlayer playing catch-up

The BBC's Newsnight team lurched into action last night by "revealing" that "up to 18 million" mugshots of Brits were being stored on a huge police database without proper regulatory oversight.

Setting aside the fact that we already knew back in December that many of the photos kept on the Police National Database (PND) contained the mugshots of innocent folk in England and Wales, Newsnight couldn't resist claiming a scoop.

It wheeled out the UK's Biometrics Commissioner, Alastair MacGregor QC, whose remit currently covers DNA and fingerprints – but not photo recognition technology.

He recycled his gripes about the PND after saying in December, following the publication of his first annual report, that he had "real doubts" about the automatically searchable database – which at that point retained 12 million custody photographs.

We already knew that police storing such images had been the subject of litigation back in 2012, after two innocent citizens took their case to the High Court to force Scotland Yard to remove pictures of them from the database.

So what did we learn from Newsnight?

Only that the Liberal Democrats – in the run-up to the General Election – are in a pickle about the PND. Cabinet minister David Laws said in a letter to the Home Office that he was "alarmed" by the database and added that it raised "political, legal and operational concerns."

And we also have a new figure of up to 18 million mugshots now being apparently stored by cops.

MacGregor told the Beeb last night that there were "grounds for doubts" about the reliability of facial recognition tech.

Meanwhile, the Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, Mike Barton, claimed the PND was an "impressive database" – the use of which was guided by the UK Data Protection Act, which he said was "our bible on this".

He added: "Everybody is very keen that the police enter the cyber world."

Barton also said he was "unashamed" about keeping the photos of innocent Brits on the database because the police apparently needed them "for different purposes".

The Register asked the Home Office to explain how it was addressing the gaping regulatory hole around the use of photo recog tech by police forces across England and Wales.

A spokesperson told us:

There is an important role for images of those arrested and taken into custody in the detection and prevention of crime – but such images must be used in accordance with the law.

This is a complex issue which needs careful consideration of the balance between public protection and civil liberties.

That is why we are currently reviewing the framework through which the police use custody images, and expect to be able to report in the spring.

The Information Commissioner's Office told the Reg:

Custody photographs held on police systems are covered by the DPA and the police will need to comply with its provisions. Advances in technology mean that pictures are an increasingly powerful identification technology like more traditional biometric information such as fingerprints and DNA profiles.

It is important that images of those who are of no ongoing concern to the police are not held longer than necessary or used in warranted ways.

The Biometrics Commissioner has raised the issue with us and we are also discussing this with representatives of the police to ensure that the use of custody photographs comply with the DPA.

El Reg sought comment from ACPO on this story, but it hadn't got back to us at time of publication. ®

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