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Parliamentary committee calls for halt to facial recognition trials

Issues with biometrics and forensics pose a significant risk to effective functioning of the criminal justice system, according to a report by the Science and Technology Committee

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has expressed concern about the current state of the government’s approach to biometrics and forensics, and has reiterated its call for a halt to all further trials of automatic facial recognition technology until issues have been resolved.

Very little has been achieved by government in the year since the committee’s last report on the topic, according to the latest report, which said the Forensic Science Regulator has highlighted that the “situation in the forensics market has got worse in many respects”.

The report said it is “unacceptable” that the government has failed to show leadership and pass what is “ultimately an uncontroversial” piece of legislation – the Forensic Science Regulator Bill – which the committee considers vital for the effective administration of justice.

The committee recommended that the Home Office should apply for a legislative slot for the bill in the next parliamentary session and not rely on backbench members to get the legislation through parliament.

The committee said it remains “seriously concerned” about the long-term viability of the market for forensic science services and the significant risk this poses to the effective functioning of the criminal justice system.

The report said the “fragility of the current forensics market” was “starkly reinforced” in June 2019 with the ransomware attack on Eurofins Forensics Services (EFS), which was carrying out DNA testing, toxicology analysis, firearms testing and computer forensics for police forces across the UK.

Although the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) suspended use of EFS immediately and isolated police networks, with urgent and priority submissions diverted to alternative suppliers, the report said capacity was affected with a backlog of cases building, noting that Eurofins deals with more than 70,000 criminal cases in the UK each year.

In light of the fact that the government has failed to propose measures that would adequately address many of the market stability challenges in the forensic services market, the report recommended that the government works with the Forensic Science Regulator to develop proposals for a National Forensic Science Capability.

These proposals should focus on forensic disciplines where skills are threatened and/or already insufficient, and should also ensure that cyber security standards and protection are strictly applied and that secure data back-up of information is routinely and securely stored.

On the topic of facial recognition technology, the report highlighted growing evidence from respected, independent bodies that the lack of legislation surrounding the use of automatic facial recognition has called the legal basis of the trials into question.

A recent independent report by the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project into the application of the technology by a UK police force found that the use of live or automatic facial recognition by the Metropolitan Police could be held unlawful if challenged in court.

Also, facial recognition technology that can scan crowds and then check large databases for matches in seconds is processing personal data, according to a key preliminary finding of an inquiry into the technology by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

“However, the government seems to not realise or to concede that there is a problem,” the report said.

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The report reiterated the committee’s recommendation that automatic facial recognition should not be deployed until concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been resolved, and called on the government to issue a moratorium on the current use of facial recognition technology so that no further trials take place until a legislative framework has been introduced and guidance on trial protocols, and an oversight and evaluation system, have been established.

On National Surveillance Camera Day on 21 June 2019, UK surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter called for a strengthening of the code of practice for the surveillance camera industry in the face of new privacy regulation and surveillance technologies such as facial recognition.

“I am a big fan of listening to people who hate surveillance,” he said. “I love surveillance, but it is important that we understand where the pressure points are for those who challenge it, so that we can mitigate against them.”

In May, the US city of San Francisco voted to ban police from using facial recognition applications, and California is considering similar moves. 

Earlier this month, a US non-profit organisation, Fight for the Future, launched what it claims is the first national campaign in the US calling for a federal prohibition of all uses of facial recognition technology by governments.

The BanFacialRecognition.com campaign enables members of the public to contact their congressional and local representatives to urge them to ban surveillance technology.

On the topic of retention of custody images, the report said progress seems to have stalled on ensuring that the custody images of unconvicted individuals are deleted. “It is unclear whether police forces are unaware of the requirement to review custody images every six years, or if they are simply ‘struggling to comply’,” the report said.

Police forces should give a higher priority in the allocation of their resources to ensure a comprehensive manual deletion process of custody images in compliance with national guidance, the committee said.

“In turn, the government should strengthen the requirement for such a manual system to delete custody images and introduce clearer and stronger guidance on the process,” said the report. “In the long term, the government should invest in automatic deletion software, as previously promised.”

Norman Lamb, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said the proper use, provision and regulation of biometrics and forensics are key if the criminal justice system is to function effectively.

“It is very concerning that the forensics market has, yet again, come perilously close to collapse in the year since we published our last report,” he said. “This only serves to exacerbate the continued concerns that my committee and its predecessors have continually voiced about the state of forensics in this country.

“The government might claim to ‘strongly support’ the Forensic Science Regulator Bill, but its actions do not meet its words. Now is the time for action.”

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