England and Wales Grows Biometric Surveillance of Innocent Citizens

The simple fact is that if your mugshot is held on a police database in England or Wales, your face could be one of 18 million that have been uploaded to a biometric facial recognition database. What is most concerning, however, is that an undisclosed number of the photos uploaded will be of people who were never charged or convicted of any crime. Cause for further concern is that the upload is reported to have taken place without Home Office approval.

The BBC reported that Biometrics Commissioner Alastair MacGregor QC was concerned about the implications of the system for privacy and civil liberties. MacGregor is reported to have told Newsnight that police forces had begun setting up a searchable database of police mugshots last year, without telling either him or the Home Office and that almost every police force in England and Wales had now supplied photographs.

Although the police claim the system complies with the Data Protection Act, it seems hard to see how this can be so if those with images on the system are not aware that their data is being used in this way. It also seems unlikely that images of people who are not charged with an offence, or who are cleared of charges, would be permitted to be used in this way under the Act. The Data Protection Act states that those holding data on individuals must make sure the information is:

  • used fairly and lawfully
  • used for limited, specifically stated purposes
  • used in a way that is adequate, relevant and not excessive
  • accurate
  • kept for no longer than is absolutely necessary.

I don’t think this is against the law but of course we always want to catch criminals.
– Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Met Police Commissioner

While it seems obvious to most people that using images of innocent people in a surviellance database is a clear breach of the act, if only that it holds data longer than necessary, and is arguably also irrelevant and excessive, the Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe disagrees. Although Hogan-Howe revealed to the BBC that since a court case in 2012, when two people went to the High Court to force the Metropolitan Police to delete their photos from databases, his force had stopped putting images on the national database, there was no suggestion that questionable data would be removed from the database either. The Commissioner was reported as saying “I don’t think this is against the law but of course we always want to catch criminals.” In so doing Hogan-Howe perhaps reveals an underlying disregard for the privacy of innocent citizens, and the protections afforded them under the Data Protection Act, and could represent yet another public officer intent on eroding civil liberties while feeling justified doing so. If so, he may not alone.

Though facial recognition technology is already in use by the UK’s spy agencies and Border Force, it is playing an increasingly important role with police forces. Andy Ramsay, identification manager at Leicestershire Police reported to the BBC that Leicestershire Constabulary had over 100,000 images on their database, and that facial recognition could soon become more important than DNA or fingerprints. The role it can play in crime detection and police work may be convincing nevertheless forcing it through, when arguably against the law and without proper oversight, democratic mandate, and robust protections, undermines the police forces involved and their stated reason for wanting such a database – they themselves cannot be above the law.

You cannot treat innocent people the same way you treat guilty people.
– David Davis MP

Concerns about the actions taken by the police are held by MPs too. The BBC reported that Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office minister, David Laws, has written to the Home Office saying he shares “the commissioner’s concerns that this database will include images of individuals who have never been convicted of a recordable offence”. Supporting this view David Davis, the former Tory shadow home secretary, said “there is a mind-set here, which is flawed…the courts and parliament say there are limits,” adding “[y]ou cannot treat innocent people the same way you treat guilty people.” Additionally Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat former Home Office minister, was reported to have said police “ought to have stopped and asked themselves what they were doing and if it had public support”.

While the Met police commissioner suggests the law is not clear, but MPs believe the opposite, what concerns the rest of us is what action will be taken. It’s clear that innocent people should be removed from databases, but while the police play the waiting game anyone already featuring in biometric surviellance databases remain there. Of even greater concern should be the apparent willingness of police commissioners to skirt the boundaries of legality, however justified they may believe their actions to be. For now, at least, they ought to comply with the ruling from the before mentioned High Court case in 2012 in which the judge warned forces should revise their policies in “months, not years”. Waiting on the outskirts of lawbreaking, hoping to gain the support of parliament before they are taken to court again, complies neither with the spirit nor the letter of this ruling, or existing privacy laws. Our police forces should be above reproach, the current situation shows they may not be.