Ian Waldie / Staff
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Oscar Williams

News editor

Police operate facial recognition in a “policy-free vacuum”, warns MP Norman Lamb

The government’s failure to publish a framework for biometrics in policing “massively increases the risk of abuse”, the chair of the new science and tech select committee has warned.

Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb told NS Tech it was “extraordinary” that police forces were starting to apply facial recognition software “in a policy-free vacuum”.

His remarks come after it emerged that there is still no publication date for the Home Office’s biometrics strategy, nearly four years after it was due to be delivered.

“It’s incumbent upon the government to act on this and establish a clear strategy that can then be scrutinised,” said Lamb. “There is an urgency about this now given that the police are starting to use [facial recognition].”

The technology is gaining popularity among police forces across the country. In June, South Wales Police cross-referenced CCTV footage with 500,000 custody images to surveil crowds at the Champions League final.

Last month, the Met deployed the technology at Notting Hill Carnival, in a move described as discriminatory by civil liberties groups.

A member of staff at the human rights organisation Liberty said it led to at least 35 false positives, five people being unduly stopped and one wrongful arrest. The Met denied the individual had been arrested, but admitted he had been “dealt with for the offence” before being stopped.

The Home Office had been due to publish a joint forensics and biometrics strategy by the end of 2013. But in March 2016, it published the forensics strategy without the biometrics component, after deciding to separate the two frameworks.

In the same month, it confirmed in a Freedom of Information request that the biometrics component was “in the final stages of completion”. But now a spokesperson has told NS Tech simply that it will be published “in due course”, but that there is no publication date.

This is despite the Home Office pledging last month to spend £5m on a five year contract to provide biometric matcher engine software to the police.

Biometrics commissioner Paul Wiley noted in his annual report published last week that people are at risk of being unduly targeted by the police because their images are stored in a vast facial recognition database.

The National Police Database now contains at least 19 million custody images, hundreds of thousands of which belong to people who were later acquitted or never charged with a crime, according to Wiles.

The retention of innocent people’s facial images was deemed unlawful by a court more than five years ago, but a Home Office review published in February said police should delete images only if the subject asks them to do so.

Wiles said it remained to be seen how many people would take up the opportunity. “The evidence from a similar application process to the police, to delete [Police National Computer] and biometric records, is not encouraging,” he wrote.

The commissioner also warned that there is no independent oversight of the police’s retention of secondary biometric data such as facial images and voice recordings.

“This whole process is in the hands of the police itself,” he said. “What we’ve got is a legislative deficit. I think that’s very worrying because if we’re not careful the public will lose confidence in the police.”

Lamb reiterated the need to expand the commissioner’s role: “The commissioner’s remit needs to clearly acknowledge and encompass the whole range of biometrics.”