MoD 'unlawfully' searches police biometric data

The UK's biometric commissioner is concerned about inter-government searches of law enforcement databases

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The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been searching the police national fingerprint database "unlawfully", according to the UK's biometrics commissioner, Paul Wiles.

In an annual report, published by the Home Office, about the retention and use of biometric material by law enforcement, Wiles raised concerns about the use of technology like facial recognition and how the resulting data is stored.

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The commissioner also referred to the controversy around the Metropolitan Police and the South Wales Police trialling biometrics technology. The Met came under fire for using the tech at the 2018 Champions League Final and Notting Hill Carnival, with an alarming rate of inaccuracies and zero arrests. But, another organisation came up within the report: the MoD.

"I continue to be very concerned about the searching by the Ministry of Defence into the police national fingerprint database without an agreed, clearly defined lawful basis," said Wiles. 

Wiles noted that inter-government searching of databases should be properly regulated and added that he has repeatedly challenged the MoD as to the legal basis on which the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has gained direct access to and is searching the police's fingerprint collections.

"I also wrote last year to the Permanent Secretary of the MoD seeking clarification on this issue," he said. "Over the last eighteen months, the MoD has come up with a series of claims as to the legal basis of carrying out its searching through Dstl, none of which I have found convincing."

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"There is nothing inherently wrong with hosting a number of databases on a common data platform with logical separation to control and audit access but unless the governance rules underlying these separations are developed soon then there are clear risks of abuse."

IT Pro has approached the MoD for comment.

Wiles said that there is a rapid deployment by the police of new biometric technologies and new data analytics. Some of these, he said, will improve the quality of policing and will do so in a way that is in the public interest, but not without regulation.

"The sober point is that unless there are clear and publicly accepted rules governing the police use of new biometrics then damage could be done to public trust in policing and at a time when regard for some other public institutions is declining."

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