UK govt steams ahead with £5m facial recog system amid furore over innocents' mugshots

Contract ignores lack of strategy, growing criticism

New guy says no

The current Biometrics Commissioner, who took over in June 2016, has been significantly less active than his predecessor, and in 14 months on the job has produced only a single piece of public information: a response to the Home Office's new rules about retention.

In his response, Professor Paul Wiles again argues that there needs to be "a governance framework that strikes an acceptable and proportionate balance between public benefit and individual privacy."

And he is critical of a system where the cops get to decide whether a mugshot should be removed from the database or not, noting that "future public confidence might require a greater degree of independent oversight, transparency and assurance than is proposed."

Critically, he argues that there should be a "presumption of deletion" without cost and that there should be "automatic deletion" of images. He also disagrees with the plod's assertion that the use of facial images is "generally less intrusive (than DNA or fingerprints) as many people’s faces are on public display all the time."

"I disagree with that assertion," notes Wiles who suggests that the use of facial images is actually more intrusive because "image capture can be done using cameras in public places and searched against government databases without the subject being aware."

Adding to the chorus of disapproval is also The National DNA Database Ethics Group which provides independent advice to the Home Office on ethical issues surrounding its biometric databases.

Ethics group says no

At its most recent meeting in June, the group was highly critical of the new policy for deleting photos. They noted the rules were different to the rules surrounding DNA profiles and fingerprints, going against its own official recommendation that they all be treated the same.

It also disagreed with the police's assertion that facial photos were "less intrusive" than DNA or fingerprints. "The view was put forward that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that custody images were less intrusive than DNA and fingerprints," the meeting's official minutes [PDF] note dryly. The group also noted its "disappointment at the lack of public consultation that had been undertaken concerning the use and retention of custody images."

As a result, the Home Office's own advisory panel decided to write a formal letter outlining its concerns, including the need for:

  • A public consultation on the retention of custody images
  • The unfeasibility of the requirement for individuals to apply for their custody images to be deleted and the likelihood that it would disproportionately disadvantage certain groups, and
  • The requirement for the identification and integration of future technologies which would facilitate an automatic deletion of custody images.

All of which brings us back around to this week's £4.6m contract for a standard, centralized facial recognition software.

Everyone is pretty much agreed that the police forces' current systems are a significant barrier to introducing a coherent and consistent policy to cover the 19 million photographs they currently possess. In that sense, producing an updated, standardized system is a good first step.

However, in the absence of the biometrics strategy that the Home Office has been promising for more than five years and considering that its new retention policy has been strongly criticized by both the Biometrics Commissioner and The National DNA Database Ethics Group, the bigger worry is that a single, standard national database could end up infringing on Brits' civil rights even more that it is currently. ®




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