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Scottish Government plans biometrics code for police



Response to independent review points to new legislation, deletion of some records and creation of ethics advisory group

Scotland is to get a code of practice on how the police use biometrics data, including a stipulation that they delete records of people who are not convicted.

The plans have emerged from the Scottish Government’s response to a report from the Independent Advisory Group on Biometric Data. It has generally welcomed the report and indicated the recommendations will form the basis of a public consultation later this year.

The group was set up by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson last year and chaired by John Scott QC Solicitor Advocate, and has been looking at the use of data such as DNA, fingerprints, facial and other photographic images. It was done in response to worries about the ethical and human rights considerations, and the need to find a balance between these and supporting law enforcement.

Among the key features of the Scottish Government’s response is a pledge to bring forward legislation on biometrics in the current parliamentary session, including a statutory code of practice and a framework to regulate police retention of facial images. It has already begun to work with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority on the code, which should complement existing law enforcement codes.

A different approach will be developed for 12-17 year-olds to ensure their biometric data is used in a proportionate manner.

Retention and deletion

One of the guiding principles for the code will be that the data should only be retained for purposes prescribed in law, and should be deleted if an accused person with no previous convictions is not subsequently convicted or taken to court.

This will be relevant to the retention of custody images on the Criminal History System and custody systems. The Scottish Government said it will work with Police Scotland to identify a technical solution that can implement the recommendation.

Another recommendation is that an ethics advisory group should be set up.

The response is less decisive on the question of how long to retain data, saying it is not possible to develop a timescale that will eliminate the risk of reoffending after the records have been deleted. It contends the most effective way is to assess the risks around an individual, but this might unfeasible for justice bodies.

Increase understanding

Subsequently, the Scottish Government says it will work with stakeholders to increase understanding of the issue and develop proposals for further work.

Matheson (pictured) commented: “The Scottish Government accepts the group’s report and the thrust of its recommendations. While the creation of a new biometrics commissioner to monitor compliance with a new code will require careful consideration and discussions with the parliamentary authorities, it is one that we accept in principle.

“The public should continue to have confidence in how their information is held and I hope that the publication of this report will kickstart a wider debate on biometric data and how it is best used to help keep our communities safe.”

Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald said: “Biometric data, particularly DNA, fingerprints and photographs, is a critical tool in the investigation and prevention of crime. We recognise the importance of ensuring that the public has trust and confidence in the procedures which govern its use.

“Any endeavour to strengthen the legislative framework and provide a balance between keeping the public safe from harm whilst ensuring the appropriate consideration of human rights and ethics is welcomed.”

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