Analysis The UK government's lightweight biometrics strategy has failed to make any serious policy recommendations – and instead reiterated a series of already announced promises and promising further consultation on governance.
The long-awaited strategy – first promised in 2012 – landed at 4pm on Thursday with a rather light thud, running to just 27 pages. Of these, three are cover and contents, one is a ministerial foreword, two are a glossary, and seven an annex.
This leaves a whopping 14 pages to detail the Home Office's approach to the increased use of biometric information in everyday public services – and unsurprisingly, the pamphlet falls short of the mark.
"The government’s biometrics strategy is a major disappointment,” said Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo. “After five years of waiting, it reads like a late piece of homework with a remarkable lack of any strategy.”
Norman Lamb, chairman of Parliament's Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, agreed, saying that a 27-page document “simply does not do justice to the critical issues involved,” and lamenting the fact it doesn't say what actions the government will take or, "just as importantly, what outcomes it wants to avoid."
Perhaps in anticipation of such criticisms, the Home Office noted that the strategy “does not seek to address all the current or future uses of biometrics.”
However, even with this proviso, the recommendations leave much to be desired, acting more like a scene-setter to the existing use of biometrics by the Home Office that pulls together previous announcements, while offering few concrete overarching policy objectives.
'Kicking the can down the road'
Among the bigger picture promises on oversight are an already announced board to provide the government with policy recommendations on the use of facial biometrics, and a plan to seek opinions on the governance of biometrics through a 12-month consultation.
But Lamb said this exercise “smacks of continuing to kick the can down the road,” adding that it was “simply not good enough” to wait another year for a proper strategy to be produced.
Elsewhere in this section – which is somewhat optimistically titled “maintaining public trust” – the government promised to carry out legally required data protection impact assessments before it uses a new piece of biometric technology or applies an existing one to a new problem.
The strategy also fails to do more than make passing references to some of the most controversial and widely debated aspects of the Home Office’s use of biometrics.
For instance, on the continued retention of photos of people held in police custody who haven’t been convicted, despite this practice being ruled unlawful, the government simply reiterated the fact its computers systems do not support the automatic removal of images, and new systems should help.
“When the Law Enforcement Data Service, which will replace the Police National Computer (PNC) and the PND, is in place it will enable more efficient review and where appropriate, automatic deletion of custody images by linking them to conviction status, more closely replicating the system for DNA and fingerprints,” it said.
Automated facial recognition? Yep, we're still trialling it
It's a similar story on the police’s use of automated facial recognition – something that has stirred up public debate and is the subject of two legal challenges backed by Liberty and Big Brother Watch.
Although the Home Office pledged to work with regulators to update codes of practice and “ensure that standards are in place to regulate the use of AFR [automatic facial recognition] in identification before it is widely adopted for mainstream law enforcement purposes," it failed to offer a detailed explanation of how these standards would be developed or what they might include.
And, in the meantime, the police will continue with their trials of AFR – which have been criticised for a lack of transparency and an apparent ad hoc nature – as Carlo noted, the capital's Met Police was out using the kit in Stratford, London, on Thursday.
The Home Office also outlined its own plan to “run proof of concept trials to develop this work, including at the UK border,” and mooted allowing forces access to facial image collections at custody suites and on mobile devices.
It added it was considering sharing and matching facial images held by the Home Office and those of other government departments, but again offered precious little extra detail.
Other plans included an increased use of biometrics at ports, extending access to fingerprints within the criminal justice system – including a trial to allow prisons to cross-reference local and national databases – and improving automation of fingerprint enrollment at visa centres.
The overall effect is of a shopping list of ways the government could use biometrics combined with earnest but thin references to the importance of ethics and oversight, which is at odds to the detailed and considered reports drawn up by smaller organisations in less time.
Summing up the mood, Carlo said: "While Big Brother Watch and others are doing serious work to analyse the rights impact of the growing use of biometrics, the Home Office appears to lack either the will or competence to take the issues seriously.
"For a government that is building some of the biggest biometric databases in the world, this is alarming."
‘Disappointing and short-sighted’
The biometrics commissioner, Paul Wiles, issued his response to the strategy late last night, complaining that the document lays out the current uses of biometric information and says little about future uses.
“It is disappointing that the Home Office document is not forward looking as one would expect from a strategy,” he said, pointing out that it falls short of proposing legislation to set rules on the use and oversight of new biometrics.
This failure to set out a definitive picture of the future landscape is “short sighted at best”, Wiles said.
He also noted that the proposed oversight and advisory board is described as focusing only on police use of facial images.
“What is actually required is a governance framework that will cover all future biometrics rather than a series of ad hoc responses to problems as they emerge,” Wiles said.
“I hope that the Home Office will re-consider and clearly extend the advisory board’s remit to properly consider all future biometrics and will name the board accordingly.” ®