Facial-recognition legal battle begins, ahead of proposed UK-wide biometric database
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A single platform holding all of the UK’s biometric data has been proposed by the Home Office, who say it will make it easier to share information between government bodies, although a court case launched against a local police force could prevent the widespread use of facial-recognition data.
In a strategy paper outlining the proposal, the Home Office said that a single platform would also help to “remove duplication” and “costly or inefficient workarounds”.
“This platform is not a new data set, rather a technical platform through which existing data can be more efficiently dealt with,” it said.
“This will also make it easier to use biometric data more widely across the Home Office, operational bodies such as police forces and the National Crime Agency, other Government departments and international partners.”
Biometric data refers to identifiers in the structure or appearance of the human body that allow individuals to be identified.
In a security setting, this data is most commonly used in conjunction with fingerprint scanners or facial-recognition systems, as well as DNA matching.
However, the UK government’s use and storage of this data is not without its detractors. For example, civil rights groups were critical of the Metropolitan police last year after attempts at using facial-recognition technology at Notting Hill Carnival resulted in incorrect matches and an erroneous arrest.
Yesterday, a Cardiff resident launched the first legal challenge against a UK police force’s use of facial-recognition technology, in what will be a nationwide test of the state’s power to broadly deploy biometric surveillance methods.
Ed Bridges – represented by human rights organisation Liberty – had threatened legal action against South Wales Police if it did not immediately end its use of the technology in public spaces.
South Wales Police has used facial recognition in public spaces on at least 22 occasions since May 2017. Bridges believes his face was scanned by South Wales Police at both a peaceful anti-arms protest and while doing his Christmas shopping.
He is challenging the use of the technology in court because it violates the privacy rights of everyone within range of the cameras, he said.
The Home Office paper acknowledges that biometric technologies will have an impact on the privacy of citizens.
Rapid advances in the availability and reliability of biometric technologies bring with them “a number of important choices for government, namely how to maximise the benefit to the public, while avoiding risks and protecting the privacy of the individual,” the Home Office paper states.
“Because of their deeply personal nature, and the ubiquity of some biometrics, their use also raises legitimate questions of civil liberties and can affect how the public engage with the police, immigration and others, and impact on their access to and interaction with key government services.
“As such, biometrics can be used to support the partial automation of high-volume processes, where the confidence they provide of a match significantly improves services and reduces the need for personal data to be processed or shared with other people.
“They can also be better used in lower-volume cases such as investigations or prosecutions, albeit with a high degree of human input to assure the matches they provide.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) trials being conducted by the Police are important in ensuring that we develop our thinking around this technology and to date have been adopted by a limited number of police forces only.
“There is sufficient legislation and regulation around AFR. AFR is governed by the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice and by data protection legislation.
“We do think that co-ordination between police forces and the relevant regulators and commissioners could be strengthened, and have proposed the new oversight and advisory board to address this.”