Legal questions surround police use of facial recognition tech


Police in the UK have collected more than 20 million facial recognition images without Parliament being consulted over the technology.

This figure potentially corresponds to almost a third of the population – and includes the facial images of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens, despite a High Court ruling in 2012 that said holding these was unlawful.

At the time of the judgment, the court called for an urgent review into the police’s policy of retaining the custody images of people who were never charged nor convicted of a crime.

Lord Justice Richards said: “It should be clear in the circumstances that a ‘reasonable further period’ for revising the policy is to be measured in months, not years.”

It wouldn’t actually be until 2017, five years later, that the Home Office revisited the policy in its Review of Custody Images.

The review informed the police that, contrary to the High Court judgment, they could carry on retaining innocent citizens’ photographs for six years – something that is prohibited for fingerprints and DNA profiles – unless those citizens directly applied to have their images removed. Even then, these requests could be turned down.

Alastair MacGregor QC, the former biometrics commissioner, wrote in his annual report for 2015 that “a searchable police database of facial images arguably represents a much greater threat to individual privacy than searchable databases of DNA profiles or fingerprints”.

He noted that despite this threat to privacy “this new database is subject to none of the governance controls or other protections which apply as regards the DNA and fingerprint databases” – and that it “has been put into operation without public or parliamentary consultation or debate.”

Similar concerns were raised by Parliament’s science and technology committee, which also complained to the Government that it was running two years late on its planned publication date for the joint forensics and biometrics strategy.

Although a separate forensics strategy has since been published, the biometrics strategy – which will set out how police can use technologies such as facial recognition – has still not been released by the Home Office, and it is now four years overdue.

The committee also noted that facial biometrics were currently not covered by strict rules that govern the police’s collection of DNA profiles and fingerprints, and recommended the biometrics commissioner’s role be expanded to include them.

Making his first comments to the media since taking office in June 2016, the new Biometrics Commissioner, Professor Paul Wiles, told Sky News he did not know what was causing the strategy’s delay.

According to Sky sources with knowledge of the strategy’s development, it had first been completed a number of years ago but was so poorly done that Home Office officials demanded a rewrite.

Professor Wiles said “it really is urgent for the government to publish that strategy” or “police holdings will go on increasing, and I think there’s a real danger that will undermine confidence in policing”.

Sky News understands that the strategy has now been completed, although questions remain about its quality. The Home Office says that it will be published “in due course”.

In his diplomatic response to the Custody Images Review, Professor Wiles suggested that “future public confidence might require a greater degree of independent oversight, transparency and assurance than is proposed”.

He directly disagreed with the Government’s claims that the retention and use of facial images is “generally less intrusive (than DNA or fingerprints) as many people’s faces are on public display all the time”.

Professor Wiles wrote: “The use of facial images is more intrusive because image capture can be done using cameras in public places and searched against government databases without the subject being aware.

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Source: Sky News