Three months overdue, where’s your strategy for biometrics, Home Office?

A year ago today Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee published their report into the current and future uses of biometric technologies. Although it fell short of specifically calling for legislation to regulate facial recognition, the report did recommend that the Government introduce more oversight of biometrics and begin more engagement with the public over their use.

The Home Office responded, announcing they would be publishing a Biometrics Strategy which would outline their plan for biometrics and the use of facial recognition technology. The Strategy was due to be published in 2015, but we are still waiting and whilst we wait, biometric technologies continue to be used with enthusiasm by the police, without proper regulation or oversight.

This enthusiasm was evident the day after the Science and Technology Committee published their report. In an interview on LBC Radio the Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe called for people to help the police catch burglars by installing CCTV by their front doors. He claimed, “facial recognition software has got better, and we can now apply it to images of burglaries, and then compare them with images we take when we arrest people”. Whilst it might sound harmless, checking footage against the police national database means checking against a database made up of custody photographs which show no regard to whether the person photographed was ever charged or even found guilty. We were quick to raise concern about his comments, pointing out that the database is not regulated and that the Science and Technology Committee had taken issue with its unlawful existence and use. Hardly innocent until proven guilty!

It’s not just the Met Police in London, Leicestershire Police are big fans of experimenting with facial biometrics as well. Remember the now infamous Download Festival incident, when attendees of the music festival discovered that by simply being at the festival they were going to have their faces scanned by Leicestershire Police and run against an EU database of known criminals? Well the police justified their actions on the grounds that the small print on the tickets stated that by attending the festival the rock enthusiasts had agreed to their picture being taken. Even in most people’s wildest imaginations the idea that agreeing to have your photo taken means agreeing to such intrusive actions by the police is far-fetched.

Not surprisingly, both of these stories were met with media backlash and public outcry, indicating just how perturbed we feel about facial recognition, particularly when its use is justified so tenuously.

In the UK, we may have become used to the unyielding presence of CCTV, but the idea that our faces will be scanned, logged and checked against a database makes us feel incredibly uneasy and rightly so, it’s a huge intrusion. We have seen CCTV spreading across the country since its first use in 1953 but the first Code of Practice governing how it should be used only came out in 2000. With the speed at which biometric technologies are developing, leaving a half century before taking action would unacceptable, particularly as we may soon find the CCTV cameras covering our cities being linked up to facial recognition software, allowing our faces to be tracked as we go about our normal lives.

As with so many of these technologies the negatives are often obscured, but when there is no regulation in place to protect innocent people, these negatives vastly outweigh the benefits. This is why the delay from the Home Office on their Biometric Strategy is such a worry. As more incidents involving facial recognition appear in the newspapers, whether at festivals, online, in shops, bars, or even churches (as has been seen in America), the urgency for guidance on the correct use of the technology will grow. The Home Office should not assume this technology will simply sort itself out, they need to be proactive.

The Science and Technology Committee’s report called for “a comprehensive, cross-departmental forensics and biometrics strategy to be published by the Government no later than December 2015.” This should not be left any longer, the Home Office need to get serious about regulating this technology now.