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MPs urge caution over facial recognition tech

29/05/18

Science and Technology Committee calls for urgent publication of Biometrics Strategy and upgrade of IT system

A committee of MPs has urged the Government to impose a cautious approach to the roll out of facial recognition technology, upgrade the relevant IT system and quickly publish the much delayed Biometrics Strategy.

Male head silhuoetteThe Science and Technology Committee has published a report on the strategy, which the Government originally promised for 2014, and forensic services, which was covered in a strategy produced in 2016.

It says the delay on biometrics has contributed to significant confusion around legal and ethical issues and that the Government should publish the report in the next month.

A court case in 2012 led to a ruling in favour of an individual who wanted his image deleted from a police database after he had been arrested but not subsequently convicted. The Home Office responded by setting up a system in which people not convicted could request the deletion of their images, but existing IT systems make it impossible to do this automatically and it still requires a manual process.

No delay

One of the report’s recommendations is that the Government should ensure the IT upgrade, with a fully automatic image deletion system, is completed without delay. If there is a delay it should introduce a comprehensive system for manual deletions as quickly as possible.

The MPs say the Biometrics Strategy should address which of these routes will be followed and set out the Home Office’s response to on the lawfulness of how it has responded to the court case.

“The Government’s approach is unacceptable because unconvicted individuals may not know that they can apply for their images to be deleted, and because those whose image has been taken should not have less protection than those whose DNA or fingerprints have been taken,” the report says.

While it acknowledges the potential value in facial recognition technology, it says it is still evolving and there are concerns over its reliability and potential for discrimination.

The Government has said it is currently used selectively. The report welcomes this point but says the technology should not yet be generally deployed beyond the current pilots.

It also points to the ethical issues to be resolved and says the strategy should consider how images will be managed and regulated, potentially by a dedicated regulator or extending the current remit of the biometrics commissioner.

Infringement of liberty

Norman Lamb MP, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said: "In the four years since the Government promised to produce a Biometrics Strategy, the Home Office and Police have developed a process for collecting, retaining, and reusing facial images that some have called unlawful."

"Large scale retention of the facial images of innocent people amounts to a significant infringement of people’s liberty without any national framework in place and without a public debate about the case for it. The Government must urgently set out the legal basis for its current on-request process of removing images of innocent people. It is unjustifiable to treat facial recognition data differently to DNA or finger print data.”

“It should urgently review the IT systems being developed and ensure that they will be able to deliver an automated deletion system, or else move now to introduce comprehensive manual deletion that is fit for purpose."

Image by Simon Waldherr, CC BY-SA 3.0 through Wikimedia

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