Official watchdog issues warning to police force against their 20m database of public facial images.
The police force has recently come under fire for unlawful retention of facial images on their searchable database. Even though the high court ruled this unlawful, their database currently possesses over 20M images.
According to Paul Wiles, a biometrics commissioner, the police’s usage of their facial image database stretches beyond mere custody purposes. Instead, police are now utilizing this database to identify certain individuals in public.
Wiles adds to this that facial recognition is purely the first step in a new wave of biometrics. Currently, the police are already experimenting with an array of new biometric technologies including voice recognition, as well as iris, gait, and vein analysis.
While facial images have been utilized by the police since the invention of photography, the ability to render digital images and store them on a database makes allows the police to utilize this resource as never before.
Facial recognition differs from other biometric information such as DNA and fingerprints in that they can be taken without the individual’s knowledge. In fact, the majority of the population are already in the existing database due to photos for passports, driving licenses, and identification documents.
While there’s no doubt as to the usefulness of facial images, Wiles cautions that the public may not necessarily be willing to accept the police force’s storage of their images on a database. He adds that this acceptance can only be facilitated as long as the public has an assurance from government agencies that these images are in the public interest, and that restraint will be practiced in using this database.
Reports state that in July 2016 there were 19m facial images on the police national database. Of these images, approximately 16.6m were enrolled in a facial recognition gallery and were searchable using special software. In addition to this, several police forces like The Metropolitan and Leicester police forces possess their own “extensive collections.”
The practice of retaining images of innocent individuals with no charge, conviction, or sentence, has been ruled unlawful by the high court during 2012. A further Home Office review issued by the then home secretary, Theresa May, ordered police forces to delete all images from unconvicted individuals.
Yet this review was unsuccessful as it left issues such as management, interpretation, governances, and technicalities up to the police force in question. There was also no independent overseeing that this was completed.
According to Wiles, despite the fact that this ruling was passed five years ago, there is still no clear policy in place to ensure that this policy is enforced.
Wiles’ report was echoed by a national Watchdog, The Big Brother Watch, who agreed with the biometric commissioner’s warnings and concerns regarding the practice of retaining facial images.
Chief executive of The Big Brother Watch, Renate Samson, stated that it is seriously concerning that the Home Office along with the police force is so determined to include facial recognition into their biometric database without being open to public debate, or being willing to regulate the matter.
Yet Home Office Minister, Baroness Williams, stated in defense of the police service that it should be assumed that all images unnecessary to investigations or policing matters, and that the public should be willing to compromise in order to strike a balance between privacy and protection.