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MPs 'alarmed' by millions of mugshots on Brit cops' databases

Sci and Tech Committee slams gov inaction on biometrics grab

A panel of MPs has attacked the Tory-led coalition government for failing to clamp down on the collection of millions of Brits' mugshots, which have been stored on a police database without robust legal oversight.

Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Labour MP Andrew Miller, branded the "continuing lack of transparency in the delivery of scientific advice to government on biometrics" as "unacceptable".

Concerns about the lack of regulatory oversight were a core feature of the MPs' damning report.

Miller said that the panel was dismayed to have discovered that millions of photographs of British citizens had been uploaded to the Police National Database (PND) for automated facial recognition tech searches.

The Register reported in December last year that some of the individuals, whose mugshots were held on the database, had not even been charged by the police.

The committee's chair said:

As we struggle to remember ever more passwords and pin numbers in everyday life, the potential benefits of using biometric technologies to verify identity are obvious. However, biometrics also introduce risks and raise important ethical and legal questions relating to privacy and autonomy.

We are not against the police using biometric technologies like facial recognition software to combat crime and terrorism.

But we were alarmed to discover that the police have begun uploading custody photographs of people to the Police National Database and using facial recognition software without any regulatory oversight—some of the people had not even been charged.

MPs on the panel recommended a number of changes to tighten regulation around the use of biometrics by the police, by saying that oversight "should extend beyond fingerprints and DNA."

As previously noted by El Reg, the Biometrics Commissioner Alastair MacGregor QC's remit currently covers DNA and fingerprints – but not photo recognition technology.

Last week, a UK Supreme Court decision established that cops may record any data that “has not been obtained by any intrusive technique such as bugging or DNA sampling.

As the use of Biometrics in Blighty becomes more widespread, calls for meatier regulation are growing louder.

The Committee had, for instance, heard from the Biometrics Institute, which "highlighted the example of ‘photos’ being captured by CCTV in public spaces, such as casinos and shopping centres, and subsequently matched 'with photos from social networking sites with the aim of identifying the individuals and selling the information to brokers to target these people with advertising campaigns about betting'."

Dr Richard Guest of the University of Kent's School of Digital Arts – another witness during the panel's hearings – told El Reg that he hoped biometric technology was utilised for commercial security purposes, but also suggested that some attempts to do this so far may have been “gimmicky”.

Meanwhile, US security giant Northrop Grumman offered up this nugget in its evidence to the Committee:

Surveillance applications for finding and identifying faces in crowds [would] flourish with advancements in face matching algorithms, better cameras and lenses that can see and match in partial lighting conditions.

The committee urged the government to outline "effective regulation and a clear strategy for dealing with the use of biometric technologies" to put an end to police slurping up Brits' data without any appropriate oversight. ®

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