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Sci-tech committee:'s 27-page biometrics strategy is great... as toilet paper

Document skirts around 'the fundamental issues involved'

The UK government's 27-page blueprint to use biometrics "in no way did justice to the fundamental issues involved" in cops' increasing use of the tech, the chair of the Commons science committee has said.

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb made the declaration as his committee confirmed it will be holding a one-off evidence session to follow up on the biometrics strategy that was published in June last year.

MPs will grill Home Office minister Baroness Williams and biometrics commissioner Paul Wiles – who also criticised the strategy after its publication – on 19 March.

The aim is to assess what progress the government has made in meeting the recommendations set out in the committee's 2018 report on biometrics in law enforcement.

This slammed the Home Office's attitude to its custody image database, which contains 21 million shots of faces and identifying features that are retained unless someone requests they are deleted. That is in spite of a 2012 High Court ruling which stated keeping images of presumed innocent people was unlawful.

The MPs called on the Home Office to include an assessment of the lawfulness of this solution in its biometrics strategy, as well as to commit to a parliamentary debate about facial recognition technology, which continues to be used without a formal governance framework.

However, when the strategy was published – some six years after it was first promised – it ran to just 27 pages and failed to make any serious policy recommendations, instead reiterating existing promises and offering further consultations.

"The government has finally published its biometrics strategy – as we repeatedly called on it to do – but the 27-page document in no way did justice to the fundamental issues involved, particularly around loss of privacy," said Lamb.

Lamb and Williams have already exchanged a series of letters about biometrics and forensic science regulation, which was also considered in the report and will be included in the one-off session next month.

In a December letter (PDF), Williams said that since the strategy was published the government has "been working to ensure the delivery of better public services, whilst maintaining public trust".

That included establishing the Law Enforcement Facial Images and New Biometrics Oversight Board, which is chaired by Mike Barton, chief constable of Durham Constabulary, and has reportedly met three times.

Williams, a life peer, said that, "to promote transparency, we will be publishing the minutes of the meetings shortly" – but when El Reg last month asked the Home Office about their whereabouts, we were told they would be published "soon".

There is still no information page for the board on the GOV.UK website, as there are for other oversight bodies such as the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group.

The baroness also said the government had started a review of governance and oversight of biometrics "with input from subject matter experts" and it would "engage with other interested parties shortly".

The Home Office has had difficulties replacing the Police National Computer and Police National Database with a Law Enforcement Data Service (LEDS). Williams has previously pointed to the creation of LEDS as a way to resolve issues with custody image retention and deletion in the medium term.

But civil rights group Liberty revealed in October that it had walked out of a consultation group on the plan, citing concerns about the project and the consultation process.

The Science and Technology Committee has not launched a formal terms of reference ahead of the March session on biometrics and forensics, but said that written submissions will be accepted until 11 March. ®

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