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Biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner resigns

Dual biometrics and surveillance camera watchdog will step down at the end of October 2023, noting that while he agreed to stay on until the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill received royal assent, continuing delays to its passage means he will not be able to effectively discharge his functions

The biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner for England and Wales has handed in his resignation to the Home Office, citing delays to the Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill.

As biometrics commissioner, Fraser Sampson is responsible for oversight of how police collect, retain and use a range of biometric material (including digital facial images), while as surveillance camera commissioner he is tasked with encouraging police compliance with the surveillance camera code of practice.

Sampson was appointed to the dual position in March 2021, after the Home Office announced in July 2020 that it would be amalgamating the roles to make the discrete statutory functions of each office the responsibility of a single individual.

In a letter to home secretary Suella Braverman, Sampson said while he was originally appointed for a two-year period, he agreed to a short term reappointment until the DPDI bill received royal assent, which at the time was expected to fall within the same session of Parliament.

“Changes to the parliamentary timetable have resulted in the bill not being expected to attain royal assent until the Spring of 2024 at the earliest,” he said.

“Having explored a number of alternatives with officials, I am unable to find a practical way in which I can continue to discharge the functions of these two roles beyond 1 November and I must therefore give notice of my intention to resign on 31 October 2023, that being three months from the date of this letter.

“I shall, of course, continue to carry out the duties of the position in accordance with the terms of my reappointment for the notice period and wish my successor(s) well.”

Sampson was also critical of the DPDI Bill, noting its provisions would make his current roles obsolete.

“The bill makes provision for the functions of the biometrics commissioner to be subsumed by the Investigatory Powers commissioner and removes the need for the government to publish a Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, rendering the functions of the surveillance camera commissioner otiose,” he said.

Sampson further told Computer Weekly that he remains of the view that scrapping the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice “will, among other things, deprive the police of the one legal instrument that they can pray in aid when properly exploiting new technology such as facial recognition”.

He added: “It will also miss an opportunity to adapt that instrument to introduce ethical considerations into the procurement and deployment of intrusive surveillance capability.

“Moreover, the risks of storing increasingly comprehensive datasets in policing have never been more apparent and we need a compelling strategy for managing them.”

Computer Weekly contacted the Home Office about Sampson’s resignation. A spokesperson said: “We are very grateful to Professor Sampson for his work as both Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and the wealth of experience he brought to the roles. We wish him well for the future.”

Sampson has been public in his criticisms of the government’s regulatory proposals, noting as early as November 2021 – when the plan was to further amalgamate his roles under the purview of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – that they are “ill-conceived”.

In an independent report commissioned by Sampson (which was subsequently submitted as part of his evidence to the DPDI Bill Committee in May 2023), academics Pete Fussey and William Webster also said that collapsing Sampson’s discrete roles into a single office would create a host of oversight issues that would undermine the government’s stated goal of regulatory simplicity.

They added the proposed separation of biometrics regulation to different bodies – for example, fingerprints and DNA being handed over to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner (IPCO) and facial recognition to the ICO – “risks a de facto segregation in the oversight of different biometrics techniques, where the governance of all other forms rests elsewhere”.

In his first annual report covering his dual functions – delivered to Braverman in November 2022 and laid before Parliament on 9 February 2023 – Sampson said that while he welcomed a subsequent amendment to not have every function transferred over to the ICO, “the proposal… [in the DPDI] simply deletes the Surveillance Camera Code and its attendant functions rather than making provision for their being taken on by the ICO as proposed in the consultation”.

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