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Oscar Williams

News editor

The Home Office’s biometrics strategy is not a strategy, say critics

The Home Office’s long overdue biometrics strategy “fails to do justice to the critical issues” involved in collecting biometric data, the chair of the science and technology committee has warned.

In an official response to the publication, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb accused the government of failing to address privacy concerns specifically relating to the way facial images are harvested by the police.

“The ‘Strategy’ seems to boil down to setting up an advisory ‘board’ to suggest policy recommendations to Government, rather than telling us what actions the Government will take and, just as importantly, what outcomes it wants to avoid”, Lamb added.

The report was published late last week, more than four and a half years after it was first promised, and just one day before the revised deadline set by government earlier this year.

The Home Office has faced mounting pressure in recent months to clarify its position on the use of facial recognition software by police forces and immigration officers across the UK.

In an interview with NS Tech last year, Lamb warned that the government’s failure to publish a framework for biometrics in policing “massively increases the risk of abuse”. In May, the Information Commissioner’s Office pledged to take legal action against police forces that cannot prove facial recognition is effective.

Civil liberties campaigners have also questioned whether the technology is accurate enough to warrant the privacy trade-off. A member of staff from Liberty who observed the Met Police’s facial recognition operation at Notting Hill Carnival last year claimed it led to at least 35 false positives, five people being unduly stopped and one wrongful arrest. No legitimate arrests were made as a result of the deployment.

Paul Wiles, the UK’s biometrics commissioner, said the government strategy “says little about what future plans the Home Office has for the use of biometrics and the sharing of biometric data”.

“It is disappointing that the Home Office document is not forward looking as one would expect from a strategy,” he said. “In particular it does not propose legislation to provide rules for the use and oversight of new biometrics, including facial images.”

Wiles warned in his last annual report that there is no independent oversight of the police’s retention of secondary biometric data such as facial images and voice recordings.

In February last year, the Home Office published a report stating that police forces should delete the biometric data of people who are taken into custody but never convicted of a crime – but only if citizens ask them to do so.

Wiles said it remained to be seen how many people would take up the opportunity. 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.

Responding to the strategy, Wiles said: “Given that new biometrics are being rapidly deployed or trialled this failure to set out more definitively what the future landscape will look like in terms of the use and governance of biometrics appears short sighted at best.”