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IT failings hinder deletion of facial images

19/04/18

Chair of MPs’ committee says retention of photos of innocent people undermines civil liberties

Millions of facial images of innocent people cannot be deleted because IT failings make it too expensive, a Government minister has claimed.

The work would have to be done manually by local police forces, making the costs “difficult to justify”, a House of Commons committee investigating the controversy has been told.

The Home Office also admitted it does not hold the data on how many people have successfully asked for their mugshots to be deleted – amid suspicions that the figure is very low.

The admissions have come despite a High Court ruling six years ago that the mass retention of facial images, including of people charged with no offence, is illegal.

Criticisms

They were criticised by Norman Lamb (pictured), chair of the Science and Technology Committee, who has warned that the excessive use of the giant mugshot database raises fundamental civil liberty issues.

Norman Lamb“Innocent people should rightly expect that images gathered of them in relation to a crime will be removed if they are not convicted,” the Liberal Democrat MP said. “This is increasingly important as police forces step up the use of facial recognition at high profile events – including the Notting Hill Carnival for the past two years.

“It appears that the police are making do with current systems and practices even if it results in images of innocent people being retained.”

In 2012, the High Court warned of the “risk of stigmatisation of those entitled to the presumption of innocence” from the storing of facial images, particularly for children.

But the Home Office urged forces to carry on retaining the images, promising new laws would follow. At least 20 million are stored – equivalent to a staggering one third of the UK population.

Strategy delay

Meanwhile, a biometrics strategy has been delayed for five years, prompting the biometric commissioner’s warning that the number of retained images would rocket, breaching individual privacy.

Concern has grown about the database as police have developed the ability to capture images using cameras in public places, as well as of people arrested or questioned.

Baroness Williams, the Home Office minister responsible for biometrics, agreed to explain in writing why mass retention is continuing, after appearing before the committee.

Her letter, published today, states that mugshots are stored on the computer system of an arresting force before being transferred to the Police National Database (PND). It means the images have to be deleted manually by the local force – a “complex exercise” – unless a decision is taken to upgrade all 43 local systems and the PND.

 “Any weeding exercise will have significant costs and be difficult to justify given the off-setting reductions forces would be required to find in order to fund it,” Baroness Williams says in the letter.

Many DNA and fingerprint records have been deleted under legislation brought in by the Coalition Government, which promised to “roll back the database state”. However, in those cases, expunging them from a central database wiped out all records – while deleting facial images from the PND would leave them on local systems, the minister explained.

Baroness Williams said the Home Office aimed to upgrade technology “in the medium term” to enable easier deletion of mugshots, but gave no timescale.

Image from Liberal Democrats

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