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Proposals for Scottish Biometrics Commissioner to be Examined

Ross Kelly


UK Government Biometrics

The Open Rights Group has welcomed the move but cautioned that the Commissioner could be constrained and lack the ability to maintain strict standards. 

The Scottish Parliament Justice Committee has launched a call for evidence on new Scottish Government proposals to create a Scottish Biometrics Commissioner.

The proposed Commissioner could be tasked with overseeing the use of biometric data by Police Scotland or the Scottish Police Authority.

Police and security services currently use biometric data to help prevent, detect and fight crime. Techniques employed by police range from traditional methods, such as fingerprinting, to the use of emerging technologies like voice pattern analysis.

Biometric data covers personal information pertaining to physical, biological, physiological or behavioural identifiers. Privacy rights campaigners have, in recent years, become increasingly critical of the use of biometric data – and emerging technologies – being deployed by police forces elsewhere in the UK.

In London, facial recognition pilot schemes have been heavily criticised, with civil rights group branding the scheme ‘Orwellian’. South Wales police have also trialled facial recognition at public events, including the Champions League Final in Cardiff.

Last week, the UK’s biometrics commissioner, Paul Wiles, issued a warning over the “chaotic” manner in which police forces have been using facial recognition technology. Wiles called for a more concise legal framework on the deployment of technologies which capture biometric data.

The main purpose of Scotland’s Biometrics Commissioner will likely be to consider the ethical and human rights implications of such technologies – with a strong focus on how authorities will collect, use, store and dispose of biometric data in a safe and responsible manner.

The Commissioner will also work to promote compliance with guidance set out on how this data can be used. The Committee will be examining issues such as whether the Commissioner will be capable of enforcing compliance effectively.

Committee Convener Margaret Mitchell MSP said: “Balancing rights and responsibilities is always difficult. Particularly when looking at questions around protecting the public from harm, versus protecting the public from state intrusion.

“The rapid development of technology that can identify individuals by using highly personal data, and the huge risks associated with this sort of data being used improperly, means that these are interesting and timely proposals from the Scottish Government.

“The Committee will grapple with whether the idea to create this new Commissioner is the right way to deal with these issues, and whether the Commissioner’s proposed powers and remit are fit for the challenges ahead.”

Matthew Rice, Scotland director for Open Rights Group, said the proposed Commissioner is a “welcome development” yet raised concerns that there could still be constraints due to guidance not being binding.

“The proposed Scottish Biometrics Commissioner is a welcome development given the absence of any specific oversight in this area in Scotland. However, as it stands the Commissioner will be unhelpfully constrained because the rules they set will not be binding, but only something that bodies like Police Scotland should ‘regard’.

“This places the Commissioner at a disadvantage for supporting the adoption of lawful practices in relation to biometric data for criminal justice and police purposes.”

Rice added: “There are already human rights standards laid out for the retention of biometrics, with authoritative judgements on the retention of DNA and facial images from the European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court of the UK.

“The standards have been set – what is key for Scotland is that there is a body that can ensure the standards are maintained, and most importantly act when they are not. Currently, the Commissioner is lacking that.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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