Biometric data use 'needs public debate'

Commons committee says police treatment of biometric data is worrying

The use of biometric data warrants a public debate, the Commons' Science and Technology Committee has claimed after police were found to have kept more than 18 million mugshots of innocent and guilty people.

The images were stored for use in a facial recognition database, the BBC revealed last month, despite the High Court ruling in 2012 that such a practice was unlawful.

Following the revelations, the Science and Technology Committee's report has called for a public discussion on the ethics of biometric identification.

Committee members urged the government to build public trust over police and Whitehall use of biometric data by placing the findings of its forensics and biometrics policy group into the public domain.

Although the committee has stated that it "fully appreciate[s] the positive impact that facial recognition software could have on the detection and prevention of crime", it also revealed concerns about the length of time it has taken for police to revise their policy in light of the High Court's ruling, which came two and a half years ago.

Chair of the committee, Labour MP Andrew Miller, said: "we were alarmed to discover that the police have begun uploading custody photographs of people to the Police National Database and using facial recognition software without any regulatory oversight - some of the people had not even been charged."

Consequently, Miller's committee called on the government to start a public debate over the issue.

"We recommend that the government sets out, in its response to this report, how it plans to facilitate an open, public debate around the growth of biometric systems," the report read.

Experts told the committee that biometric authentication was "controversial and worrying", and the group set out a raft of proposals in addition to suggesting a debate over the issue in order to combat public distrust of biometric systems.

Among the proposals was the suggestion that the police's image database and facial recognition software be brought under the remit of the Biometrics Commissioner, who also regulates uses of DNA and fingerprint data.

This news comes after the failure of the Identity Card scheme and the subsequent destruction of all data contained in the National Identity Register following public outcry.

However, despite privacy legislation regarding the retention and use of DNA, no regulatory body currently exists to oversee police use of custody photographs.

In addition to greater openness regarding its biometric policy, the committee also highlighted potential security concerns. While they approved of security measures being "bolted on" early on in design, they stated that promises about the security of their biometric information "will do little to diminish the public's concerns while data losses continue to occur".

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