British police on the street in London.

Government must act on forensic science and face recognition, say MPs

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A new report heavily criticises among other things the lack of legislative framework and guidance on automatic facial recognition when tested in trials, while also warning that the market for forensic science services is in jeopardy.

In a sweeping report on 'The work of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Forensic Science Regulator', the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee expresses "serious concern" about the long-term viability of the forensic science service market. The report mentions several areas that pose a significant risk to the effective functioning of a criminal justice system.

Of particulate concern is the government's biometrics strategy which was called by the authors "not a strategy at all" and "not worth the five-year wait" that it took to compose the 27-page document.

Part of the frustration is the lack of guidance on automatic facial recognition trials when it introduces a legislative framework for these trials.

Automatic facial recognition came under fire as findings suggest a degree of ineffectiveness within the practice of law enforcement as well as concerns around the invasion of privacy - especially in regards to the identification of women and dark-skinned people.

In the Big Brother Watch briefing for the Westminster Hall debate on Facial recognition and the biometrics strategy in May, the civil liberties and privacy campaigning organisation stated that over recent years, live facial recognition has proven to be "dangerously inaccurate, producing high numbers of ‘false positive’ matches". Police would have accumulated thousands of false-positive matches of members of the public whose photos have been subsequently taken and, for a period, stored.

Two weeks ago, the information commissioner Elizabeth Denham cautioned that significant issues would remain around privacy in police trials of live facial-recognition technology.

Trials have also been called controversial while testing in London’s East End attracted protests from civil liberties group Liberty.

Another concern is a lack of progress in ensuring that custody images of unconvicted individuals are removed from databases as compliance with national guidance would demand. The previous promise by the Minister entailed a pledge to improve the IT systems which would aid in automatic deletion. Such improvements now appear to have been delayed indefinitely, the authors bemoan. Costs of weeding and deletion would be of concern, as clunky IT systems make cleansing computers a complicated and potentially costly task.

Concerns of kept images and facial recognition would interlink. Images of unconvicted people need deletion because "these images can form the basis of watchlists for automatic facial recognition technology when used by police forces in public spaces", say the report's authors. 

The verdict of the committee on the lack of progress of policies and restrictions means further instability of the forensics market at a whole. The reports called it "wholly unacceptable" for the forensics market to come perilously close to collapse in the year since the committee published the last report in 2018.

Going forward, the committee demands from the Home Office to apply for a legislative slot for a Forensic Science Regulator Bill in the next Parliamentary Session and not rely on backbench Members to get the bill through parliament. This would help to put the Forensic Science Regulator on a statutory footing and supports the use of forensics in the civil and family courts. It would also aid in preventing police to use non-accredited laboratories and help promote accreditation of in-house police laboratories.

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