Biometrics commissioners’ report highlights there is no strong governance structure for police use of facial imaging
The biometrics commissioner has urged the Home Office to produce its promised strategy on the technology urgently, as second generation biometrics are being deployed quickly without governing legislation.
Professor Paul Wiles has highlighted the issue in his annual report, saying that for facial recognition in particular the police use of the technology is running ahead of the law.
The report says that facial imaging is the most widely deployed second generation biometric so far, with police forces exploring its use in producing matches of subjects. In January of this year it was reported to the commissioner that there were 21 million facial images on the Police National Database, of which 12.5 million had been enrolled in the facial image recognition gallery and were searchable using recognition software.
But it is not governed by any specific legislation beyond that on data protection, only by regulations drawn up by the College of Policing, and neither police forces or the Home Office has made information available on how they are used.
The report says there is a need for more transparency and presses the Home Office to establish the governance within its strategy soon.
It does not object to trials carried out by South Wales Police and the Metropolitan Police on matching some retained images with those of people in public places – a move that has sparked some controversy – but says there have to be clear safeguards in place and more transparency around the reasons for conducting the trials.
Transparency and trust
“The South Wales trial has been more widely publicised both prior to and at the events where the trial has taken place and has, in general, been better received by the public,” it says. “This illustrates that any future police use of biometric data will need to be transparent if it is to carry public trust in addition, of course, to compliance with any legislative or governance requirements.”
Among its other points, the report says there is a need for police forces to assess the utility and cost-effectiveness of different types of biometrics. At the moment fingerprints are the most heavily used and DNA is widely seen to be valuable, but the emergence of new types could change the outlook.
The report says that each biometric will need a database but it is unlikely the police will be able to maintain a national one for all those available, and the value of some may decline.
“To guide their choices the police will need to understand the relative utility and cost-effectiveness of each biometric,” it says, adding that the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead on the issue has identified it as an important future need.
Image by EFF Photos, CC 2.0 through flickr