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MPs prepare probe into mugshot database

22/01/18

Commons committee chair indicates impatience with Home Office response to six-year-old High Court ruling

A parliamentary committee is poised to launch an inquiry into a police database of 20 million mugshots – including of many people not convicted of any crime.

Norman Lamb, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, warned the practice raises “fundamental civil liberty issues” and said his committee is ready to step in.

Close-up mugshot of criminalIt comes almost six years after the database was ruled unlawful by the High Court, which warned of the “risk of stigmatisation of those entitled to the presumption of innocence”. It added that the database would be particularly harmful in the cases of children.

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

Meanwhile, the formulation of a Government biometrics strategy has been delayed for five years, prompting a watchdog’s warning that the number of retained images would rocket, breaching “individual privacy”.

Now Lamb has condemned the situation as “intolerable” telling The Independent: “There are no real rules surrounding this.

“The police can store these facial images without any proper consideration of them, which raises fundamental and significant civil liberty issues about what they are retaining about us.

“It includes people who have not been charged with any crime, or people who have been exonerated.”

Ethnic worry

Lamb said an additional worry was the disproportionate targeting of ethnic minorities, adding: “There are also concerns about bias – and also about the accuracy of identification.

“This is not to say the technology doesn’t have it place, or potential value, but it needs to be operated within a clear legal and regulatory framework.”

He said he would push for Baroness Williams, the Home Office minister responsible for biometrics, to be hauled before his committee, when it discusses the controversy on Tuesday. If the minister fails to provide answers answers that satisfy the committee – as with a letter she sent before Christmas– a full inquiry will follow.

Lamb has also demanded to know whether the strategy will consider the “proper and appropriate use” of images – as well as when it will be published. Baroness Williams has said only that it will appear sometime in 2018.

Concern has grown about the mugshots database as police have developed the ability to capture images using cameras in public places, as well as of people arrested or questioned. Around 16 million are thought to be held on IT systems that can be searched using facial recognition software, allowing new images to be checked against those existing records.

Presumption of deletion

In March of last year the biometrics commissioner warned that the mass retention of images is unlawful and criticised the Home Office’s slow response to the court ruling. Professor Paul Wiles urged ministers to introduce a “presumption of deletion”, to speed up the process of removing images from the database and cut costs.

Police say officers use the technology to identify suspects, offenders and witnesses and to help with searching for unidentified suspects, such as those spotted on CCTV.

In 2012, the High Court ruled that retaining the images of people not convicted of any crime for six years before police decided whether to delete them was not proportionate.

Last year, the Home Office announced a review, but said the police would still not have to reconsider retention until after six years – and after 10 years for more serious alleged offences.

The only response to the court ruling was that people would be able to apply to the police to have their images deleted at the end of any proceedings. There would be a “presumption in favour of deletion”, but the police would be entitled to refuse such an application.

The Home Office was asked to respond to Lamb’s criticisms but declined to comment to The Independent.

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

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