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Survey shows mixed views on police use of biometrics


Mark Say Managing Editor

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More than half of British public are concerned about sharing biometric data - such as facial images – between the police force and private sector to tackle crimes like shoplifting, according to newly published research.

The Centre for Emerging Technology and Security (CETaS) at The Alan Turing Institute has published a study - The Future of Biometric Technology for Policing and Law Enforcement - that includes a survey of over 660 people, finding that 85% were comfortable with police using the technology to verify identities at the UK border.

But this fell to around 60% when respondents were asked about police using it to identify criminal suspects in a crowd; and less than a third (29%) were comfortable with biometric data being used by the police to determine whether someone might be telling the truth.

Overall, respondents were more likely to trust the use of these systems by public sector organisations such as police forces (79%) and the NHS (66%), as opposed to private companies, particularly employers (42%) and retailers (38%).

Survey respondents suggested that in most cases, biometric systems should be explicitly regulated rather than outright banned; but they were ready to support bans for the use in job interviews to assess performance and for tracking student or employee engagement.

Marginally optimistic

Sam Stockwell, lead author and research associate at The Alan Turing Institute, said: “Our research shows that people are marginally optimistic about the benefits of biometric systems for reducing crime, but there’s also a clear acknowledgement that those using them need to provide the general public with greater confidence that appropriate safeguards are in place.”

In addition to the survey, the researchers conducted interviews with 35 experts and carried out a workshop with policing, government and regulatory officials.

Other features of the study include a case that existing biometric legislation should be updated to address the risks and harms of new and emerging systems, like age or emotion recognition.

It makes a series of recommendations, including introducing new legal definitions of ‘biometrics-based data’ to account for how different types of biometric data may be used outside of just unique identification, which could have implications for members of the public.

Codes of practice

It also proposes new codes of practice around the use of biometric data and asks the National Police Chiefs’ Council to improve transparency by creating a nationwide register of where biometric systems are deployed by police forces.

In addition, police forces and relevant government departments such as the Home Office should organise roundtable discussions on future biometric technologies to better understand shared areas of concern and opportunity for public safety activities.

Looking to the potential future integration of biometric systems across society, 42% of survey respondents predicted that the benefits will ‘somewhat’ outweigh the concerns. In contrast, 29% predicted that the concerns will either ‘somewhat’ or ‘far’ outweigh the benefits.

Professor Tim Watson, the institute’s science and innovation director for defence and national security, said: “There’s a growing demand to find new ways to protect our personal data due to increasingly sophisticated cybersecurity threats and identify fraud techniques and biometrics is likely to play a crucial role.

“We hope that this research will help policymakers to understand where the gaps are and plan accordingly.”

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