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MPs slam government for biometrics strategy delay

Science and Technology Committee questions legality of the police’s approach to deleting mugshots of innocent people, and says government’s reasons for four-year delay to a new strategy is “less than convincing”

MPs have criticised the government’s approach to the retention of innocent people’s mugshots, and called on the government to upgrade its IT so images are automatically deleted if the person is not convicted.

In its report on the government’s biometrics strategy and forensics, the Science and Technology Committee said there are serious ethical implications with the use and retention of facial images, which it must take action to solve through the use of better IT.

A 2012 ruling found that it’s unlawful to hold custody images, or mugshots, of people without making a distinction between those who have been found guilty and those who are innocent. However, due to the cost of deleting innocent people’s images, the government’s current approach is that images will only be deleted when people apply to have them removed.

“The Government’s approach is unacceptable because unconvicted individuals may not know that they can apply for their images to be deleted, and because those whose image has been taken should not have less protection than those whose DNA or fingerprints have been taken,” the report said.

“There are important ethical issues involved in the collection, use and retention of facial images in particular because they can easily be taken and stored without the subject’s knowledge and because various image databases already include 90% of the adult population between them.”

There are currently around 2.5 million images on the Police National Database, which police forces can search, using facial recognition software. According to figures from the Press Association, between February and October 2017, only 67 people asked to have their images deleted.

Science and Technology Committee chair Norman Lamb said that the current approach is “unacceptable”.

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Large scale retention of the facial images of innocent people amounts to a significant infringement of people’s liberty without any national framework in place and without a public debate about the case for it,” he said.

“The government must urgently set out the legal basis for its current on-request process of removing images of innocent people. It is unjustifiable to treat facial recognition data differently to DNA or finger print data.”

He added that the government “urgently” needs to review the IT systems currently under development to ensure they can deliver an automated detection system, and if that’s not possible, to introduce “comprehensive manual detection”.

The committee also criticised the government for its four-year delay in producing a biometrics strategy, which it hopes will address these issues.

The strategy, which was due in 2014, has yet to be published, is crucial, the committee said, in addressing these issues.

“In the four years since the government promised to produce a biometrics strategy, the Home Office and police have developed a process for collecting, retaining, and reusing facial images that some have called unlawful,” said Lamb.

Facial recognition and forensics issues

The report also highlighted concerns around the general use of facial recognition software. It said that although it can help policing, the committee is worried about its current use “including its reliability and the potential for discriminatory bias”.

The government told the committee it’s only being used for targeting those on “watch lists” rather than as an overall, blanket approach, and the committee said it should “not be generally deployed, beyond the current pilots, until the current concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved”.

“The biometrics strategy should include an undertaking that the House will be given an opportunity to debate and vote on the issue,” the report said, adding that it welcomes the government’s plans to set up a facial images oversight board.

“The forthcoming biometrics strategy should consider how image databases should be managed and regulated, potentially by a dedicated ‘Regulator’ or by the Biometrics Commissioner with an extended remit,” it said.

As well as issues around the biometrics strategy, the committee is also concerned about the sustainability of the forensics market. The government issued a forensics strategy in 2016, but the committee said it requires a refresh, especially in the light of the “collapse of private sector providers in the recent months”.

“The overarching focus in the police’s forensics procurement appears to be on low price, and problems of fragmentation of forensics testing remain,” the report said. It added as part of the strategy refresh, a review of the forensics market is needed.

“That should include planning for dealing with providers exiting the market, but also an assessment of the underlying causes of market unsustainability. It should consider afresh whether the fragmentation of forensics testing is a result of the unsustainability of the forensics market or a contributing factor to it, and whether the procurement approaches examined by our predecessor committee need to change.”

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