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Government stance on mugshots stirs further opposition

27/03/17

Civil libertarians and LibDems get behind biometrics commissioner in criticising Home Office refusal to cull database

Civil liberties’ groups and the Liberal Democrats have reacted angrily to the police being allowed to store the mugshots of millions of innocent people on a giant database.

Mugshot of criminalThe practice has – as UKAuthority reported last week – been sharply criticised by the independent biometrics commissioner, who said the public deserved greater “independent oversight, transparency and assurance”.

Paul Wiles urged ministers to introduce a ‘presumption of deletion’, forcing the police to prove why any ‘custody images’ need to be retained. There are more than 19 million images in total.

Instead, the Home Office has proposed only that police forces be required to consider requests to delete images from people who have not been convicted of any offence.

The idea formed the Government’s response to a High Court ruling – five years ago – that the mass retention of custody images is unlawful.

Despite that judgement, police forces have quietly continued to build up a massive database without any of the safeguards that apply to DNA and fingerprint data.

Let down

Bella Sankey, policy director at Liberty, said: “The biometrics commissioner is right to feel let down. Innocent people’s photographs are held on a searchable database.

“Responsibility shouldn’t fall to the public to apply for their images to be deleted – the police should automatically clear out their own systems.”

The criticism was echoed by Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, who said: “It’s essential that pictures are automatically removed unless police give a reason to retain them. We are meant to be presumed innocent.

“The commissioner outlines exactly how intrusive this national database is becoming as facial recognition is applied to it. He is also damning about the lack of safeguards surrounding its use.”

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party Tim Farron said: “The Tories used to warn about a database state, and now, by stealth they want to create one.

“If your mugshot is still on file, and you haven’t been found guilty of anything, you have to ask nicely for it to be removed. This is utterly scandalous.”

2010 vow

In 2010 the Coalition Government – with Theresa May as home secretary – vowed to scale back Labour’s “database state”, passing a flagship Protection of Freedoms Act.

It forced the destruction of most fingerprint and DNA profiles and curbed the collection of biometric data from children, CCTV use and the collection of communications data by public bodies.

In his sharp rebuke, Wiles said the Government’s proposal “leaves the governance and decision making of this new process entirely in the hands of the police”.

Although guidance was promised, “there still might be variation in decision making between forces resulting in a postcode lottery as to whether images are retained”.

The Home Office has insisted it is impractical to insist police forces go through all 19 million custody images and delete those of people who were not convicted of an offence.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd claimed her proposals struck “a careful balance between protecting individual privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe”.

Image: Al Capone from archive of Federal Bureau of Prisons, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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