Biometrics Commissioner: Home Office changes have had significant consequences for policing the use of biometrics

July 14, 2020

The Biometrics Commissioner has published its annual report for 2019 alongside the UK government’s response. The Commissioner says that compliance across law enforcement agencies with the requirements of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 is generally good with a high level of commitment from all law enforcement agencies.

The Commissioner points out that two recent Home Office changes have had significant consequences for the policing use of biometrics:

  • The changes to police bail introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The Commissioner drew attention to the problems that the Act had created in the last two Reports and welcomes the review that the government has announced.
  • Codes guiding the police on the use of arrest powers and the subsequent growth of voluntary attendance rather than arrest have produced problems (which were detailed in the last two Reports). The effect has been to reduce the number of initial speculative searches and of new DNA profiles and fingerprints added to the national databases. Unless this situation changes, the usefulness of present and future biometrics to policing will decline and bring the overall investment in this technology into question.

The number of properly conducted policing trials of new biometrics and AI-driven analytics needs to increase to provide the evidence base that will be needed to make future decisions about the best new technology for policing. A standard trials methodology is needed.

Exploration by the police of the new biometric technologies and AI-driven analytics has been unnecessarily dampened by the failure of the Home Office to provide governance, leadership and re-assurance to support such work.

New legislation will be needed to bring these new technologies into a governance framework, and the Commissioner welcomes the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment on this matter.

Given the importance of these new technologies more generally in public and private sectors the public needs to be more engaged in a debate about what they regard as acceptable uses. Ministerial leadership would be welcomed by the Commissioner on this.

The biometric provisions of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 that are due to come into force shortly are likely to improve the consistency of decision making in relation to National Security Determinations.

UK government response

The UK government welcomed the report saying that it wants to empower the police to safely use new biometrics within a strict legal framework. It said that regarding the issue of more trials and data analytics, the Policing Minister announced in January that funding will be made available for a Police Chief Scientific Adviser and investment in science, technology and research.