The UK government’s long awaited and beleaguered Biometrics Strategy Report, first announced in 2012, has finally arrived and it amounts to just 27 pages. Of these, three are cover and contents, one is the ministerial forward, two as a glossary and seven annexes. Leaving just 14 pages to cover the details.
The government’s biometric strategy is major disappointment. After five years of waiting, it reads like a late piece of homework with a remarkable lack of any strategy.
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.- Silkie Carlo: Director, Big Brother Watch
The strategy, critics say, 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.
One such issue is the continued retention of photos of people held in police custody who haven’t been convicted. Despite this being ruled as unlawful.
A similar story concerns the police’s use of facial recognition software, which is the subject of two legal challenges. Worryingly, the report said it would consider sharing facial images with other departments.
They would also look to introduce the system into the UK’s ports, extending access to fingerprints within the justice system and are trialling prisons cross-referencing local and national databases.
The slim report pledged that the Home Office will work with regulators to update codes of practice. But it failed to offer any details of how these standards would be developed or what they would include.
It is disappointing that the Home Office document is not forward looking as one would expect from a strategy. 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.- Paul Wiles: Biometrics Commissioner, UK government
Most worryingly for its critics, the strategy says very little when it came to oversight and rules on the use of new biometrics. Except under the heading ‘maintaining public trust’ the government promised to carry out legally required data protection impact assessments before using new biometric technology.
The Home Office, perhaps anticipating the criticisms of the report, said that the strategy doesn’t seek to address all the current or future use of biometrics. But, instead to give an overarching framework within which to work. A scene-setter if you like. Given we are into year six of the strategy’s development this leaves a lot to be desired.