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Ministry of Justice concludes prison biometrics pilots

Use of iris scanning and facial recognition software is part of a wider crackdown on drug trafficking in UK jails

The UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has concluded trials of biometrics technology aimed at identifying visitors who may be trafficking drugs into prisons.

The trials started in December 2018, involving iris scanning and facial recognition software supplied by FaceWatch, Tascent and IDScan. The technology was tested in three jails – Lindholme, Humber and Hull.

This is part of a wider initiative to respond to a rise in prison drug trafficking by outside visitors, who tend to use false ID. Since most jails use paper-based identity verification, the system is, according to the MoJ, “slow, resource-intensive and open to abuse”.

With the new technology, suspicious individuals can be identified and refused entry, while evidence produced by the systems can be used in any subsequent investigation.

According to the MoJ, the technology can also act as a deterrent, with one trial suggesting a higher-than-usual no-show rate at visits after it became known that the software would be in operation.

“New technology is vital in our fight against the gangs that seek to cause chaos in prisons, and this biometric equipment has the potential to significantly aid our efforts,” said justice secretary David Gauke.

The prison service is now looking at how the tech used in the trials, as well as other innovations, could be applied most effectively across the estate.

“New technology is vital in our fight against the gangs that seek to cause chaos in prisons, and this biometric equipment has the potential to significantly aid our efforts”
David Gauke, secretary of state for justice

In 2018, more than 23,000 drug items and mobile phones seizures were made by prison staff, up by almost 4,000 from the previous year. The prison service is investing £7m in new security measures, which include improved searching techniques and phone-blocking technology to tackle the issue.

Last month, the Met Police completed its ninth deployment of facial recognition technology, aimed at identifying wanted criminals. The trial was also met with criticism by privacy rights campaigners who pointed to the fact that sensitive biometric data was being collected without people’s knowledge or consent.

The Home Office launched a strategy aimed at increasing public confidence in the government’s use of biometric data in June 2018. The plan was criticised by experts, who argued that it did little more than lay out current uses of the technology and its new applications rather than serving as the basis of a more informed public debate.

Increasing public awareness on the government’s use of sensitive personal data, such as images and fingerprints, is an area that needs attention. Research suggests the majority of UK citizens trust banks more than the government to provide biometric security.

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