Commissioner slams plans for mugshot database

Biometrics watchdog says Home Office position gives police unwarranted powers and undermines transparency

Plans for innocent people to ask for their photos to be removed from a national database leave too much power in the hands of the police, a watchdog has warned.

Close up photo of criminalThe Biometrics Commissioner has strongly criticised the Government’s response to a High Court ruling – five years ago – that the mass retention of custody images is unlawful.

Last month the Government proposed only that police forces be required to consider requests to delete images from people who have not been convicted of any offence. But Professor Paul Wiles, the commissioner, has told the Home Office that the public deserves greater “independent oversight, transparency and assurance”.

He has urged ministers to introduce a “presumption of deletion”, to speed up the process of removing images from the database and cut costs.

In a sharp rebuke, Wiles said the Government’s proposal “leaves the governance and decision making of this new process entirely in the hands of the police”. Although guidance was promised, “there still might be variation in decision making between forces resulting in a postcode lottery as to whether images are retained”.

In the case of arrest records, just 1,003 of 896,209 people arrested in 2015-16 had applied to have their police records deleted, he pointed out – of which only 233 applications were accepted by the police.

Impractical

The Home Office has insisted it is impractical to insist police forces go through all 19 million custody images and delete those of people who were not convicted of an offence.

However, Wiles said of automatic deletion: “This could be built into Police National Database and the next generation of databases currently being developed.”

He also criticised the Home Office for arguing that the retention and use of facial images is “less intrusive (than DNA or fingerprints) as many people’s faces are on public display all the time”.

He said: “I disagree with that assertion. In fact, for that reason, the use of facial images is more intrusive because image capture can be done using cameras in public places and searched against government databases without the subject being aware.

“Facial images are no longer only used solely for custody purposes and image capture and facial searching capabilities have and are being used by the police in public places.”

Lack of safeguards

Despite the 2012 court ruling, police forces have quietly continued to build up a massive database without any of the controls or privacy safeguards that apply to police DNA and fingerprint data. More than 19 million images are stored, making it possible to search them using facial recognition technology.

Last month, issuing her proposals, Home Secretary Amber Rudd claimed they struck “a careful balance between protecting individual privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe”.

The presumption was that requests would lead to images being deleted “unless retention is necessary for a policing purpose and there is an exceptional reason to retain it”.

But the commissioner concluded: “Future public confidence might require a greater degree of independent oversight, transparency and assurance than is proposed.” 

Image: Al Capone from archive of Federal Bureau of Prisons, public domain via Wikimedia Commons