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The Home Office is set to award a £300m contract for the provision of a single service management capability for its biometric systems, with supplier bids currently under review.
Running under the Home Office Biometrics (HOB) programme, the two national biometric systems – IABS and IDENT1 – provide fingerprints, DNA and facial matching. Users of the systems include law enforcement officers, immigration staff and other staff who need to use biometrics in locations such as borders, passport offices and visa application centres.
With support contracts for the two platforms ending in March and April 2019, unable to achieve the HOB future goals and presenting “clear duplication” of functions, the department is looking to transition both applications to a single supplier.
According to the Home Office, bids have been received for the contract and are under evaluation. The department did not specify the reason why the procurement exercise was running late – the contract was due to start on 30 September 2018.
Last week, David Davis MP questioned Cabinet Office minister David Lidington about what safeguards were in place to protect the security and privacy of citizen data held by the system and to ensure that the data wouldn’t be “held by foreign companies subject to foreign government laws giving foreign government access to British citizens’ private data”.
In response to the question, the minister said any tenders were subject to “the normal rules on open public procurement”, but that home secretary Sajid Javid would give “the highest priority to ensuring the security of that sensitive personal data”.
Delays have become commonplace when it comes to the government’s use of biometrics. A strategy had been promised since 2014, and in the meantime, criticisms were frequently made about the approach used by the Home Office and the police for collecting, retaining and re-using facial images.
Several issues were raised about the process of handling biometric data, including the ethics related to holding images of individuals who were not convicted – due to the cost involved, the current approach is to delete images only when people ask for them to be removed.
A biometrics strategy was finally published in June 2018, but was criticised for its lack of any strong recommendations on policy, governance and future use of biometric data.
While the Home Office stated that the aim of the strategy was to increase public confidence in the government’s use of biometric databases, critics said the plan was short-sighted given the pace of development of biometric matching technologies.
The plan also doesn’t set out the outcomes to be avoided. In addition to the hosting issue raised by MPs last week, concerns have been raised over the issue of biometric data being used without any regard for individuals’ rights.
The government appears to lack either the will or the competence to take such issues seriously, said Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo at the time the strategy was launched.
“For a government that is building some of the biggest biometric databases in the world, this is alarming. Meanwhile, the Met today is surveilling Londoners with facial recognition cameras that they have no legal basis to even use,” she said. “The situation is disastrously out of control.”