The annual biometric commissioner’s report is calling on the government to introduce legislation to better govern the use of biometric technologies in policing. The commissioner, Paul Wiles, said without clear laws there is a real risk to the public’s confidence and privacy in regards to the use of biometric data by the police.
While other biometrics such as the use of DNA and fingerprints by police are regulated clearly, new technologies such as facial recognition lack a formal framework.
Despite this lack of clarity, police are continuing to push forward with public trials of this tech before rolling it out. Some of these trials have resulted in members of the public being questioned and some wrongly arrested.
In his report, Wiles highlighted that such approaches could have negative outcomes. “The strategic question is whether the public will retain their confidence in the police use of biometrics if the important issue of proportionality has not been decided independently, by our elected representatives, rather than the police themselves,” he wrote.
“It is difficult to see anybody other than Parliament being the appropriate arbitrator of proportionality in respect of how the loss of privacy by citizens should be balanced against the exercise of policing power,” he added.
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However, Wiles acknowledged that there was a “gap between the pace of development of biometrics and the ability of government to respond”. In addition, he also highlighted issues regarding the development of biometric databases across government, “without clear governance rules or an overall government strategy nor a clear specific legislative framework”.
Such databases are the applications under the Home Office of Biometrics (HOB) programme, which includes two biometrics systems providing fingerprints, DNA and facial matching. Wiles said there needed to be more regulation around HOB programmes and of the cross-departmental use of these databases by other public bodies.
He said he was “very concerned” about the Ministry of Defence carrying out searches using the police’s national fingerprint database without a clearly specified legal basis.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with hosting a number of databases on a common data platform with logical separation to control and audit access, but unless the governance rules underlying these separations are developed soon then there are clear risks of abuse,” he said.
Given the current focus on governmental focus on Brexit, Wiles said the regulation of biometrics use in policing could be a long way off. “Home Office ministers currently show no sign of proposing a new legislative framework with specific rules to govern the police use of new biometrics in England and Wales,” Wiles said.
“I do not know whether this is because they disagree with the need for such legislation or whether this is just another casualty of the need to focus on Brexit matters”.
In response to the report, the Home Office said it was working on improving governance and oversight arrangements around biometrics, in particular when it comes to emerging innovations.
Minister of State for Countering Extremism, Susan Williams, said that the government welcomes debate around public safety and privacy in relation to the use of biometrics. She also said that the Home Office is working to remedy the issue of access rules for various bodies to biometric databases through governance work and under HOB.
Wiles report did praise the new proof of concept, the National Data Analytics Solutions (NDAS) funded by the Home Office, which is aimed at using machine learning and analytics to gain more detailed insights from police data.
“I have been impressed with how carefully the present NDAS programme has thought through how such analytics should be used, especially the danger of bias and what limitations there should be on the use of any predictions which relate to the risk presented by an individual,” he said.