COMMONS

Issues with biometrics and forensics significant risk to effective functioning of the criminal justice system

18 July 2019

The Science and Technology Committee has expressed concern regarding the current state of the Government’s approach to biometrics and forensics in a Report published today.

Lack of progress

In the year since the Committee published its last Report on biometrics and forensics, very little has been achieved by the Government.

The Government has failed to show leadership and pass what is ultimately an uncontroversial piece of legislation—the Forensic Science Regulator Bill—which is vital for the effective administration of justice. This is unacceptable.

The Committee recommends that the Home Office should apply for a legislative slot for a Forensic Science Regulator Bill in the next Parliamentary Session and not rely on backbench Members to get the Bill through Parliament.

During this inquiry, the Forensic Science Regulator highlighted that the situation had got worse in many respects. The Committee remains seriously concerned about the long-term viability of the market for forensic science services and the significant risk that this poses to the effective functioning of a criminal justice system.

As detailed in this Report, the fragility of the current forensics market were starkly reinforced this June with the cyber-attack on Eurofins Forensics Services (EFS).

Although the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) suspended use of EFS immediately and isolated police networks with urgent and priority submissions diverted to alternative suppliers, capacity was affected with a backlog of cases building (Eurofins deals with over 70,000 criminal cases in the UK each year).

The Government actions to date do not appear to propose measures that would adequately address many of the market stability challenges in the forensic services market.

This Report recommends that the Government should work with the Forensic Science Regulator to develop her proposals for a National Forensic Science Capability, which would:

  • focus on those forensic disciplines where skills were threatened and/or already insufficient; and
  • ensure that cyber security standards and protection are strictly applied, and secure data back-up of information is routinely and securely stored.

Facial recognition

This Report highlights growing evidence from respected, independent bodies that the lack of legislation surrounding the use of automatic facial recognition has called the legal basis of the trials into question. However, the Government seems to not realise or to concede that there is a problem.

The Committee calls on the Government to issue a moratorium on the current use of facial recognition technology and no further trials should take place until a legislative framework has been introduced and guidance on trial protocols, and an oversight and evaluation system, has been established.

Retention of custody images

Progress has also seemingly stalled on ensuring that the custody images of unconvicted individuals are deleted. It is unclear whether police forces are unaware of the requirement to review custody images every six years, or if they are simply ‘struggling to comply’.

Police forces should give a higher priority in the allocation of their resources to ensure a comprehensive manual deletion process of custody images in compliance with national guidance.

In turn, the Government should strengthen the requirement for such a manual system to delete custody images and introduce clearer and stronger guidance on the process. In the long-term the Government should invest in automatic deletion software as previously promised.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

“The proper use, provision and regulation of biometrics and forensics are key if the criminal justice system is to function effectively.

“It is very concerning that the forensics market has, yet again, come perilously close to collapse in the year since we published our last Report. This only serves to exacerbate the continued concerns my Committee and its predecessors have continually voiced about the state of forensics in this country.

“The Government might claim to "strongly support" the Forensic Science Regulator Bill but its actions do not meet its words. Now is the time for action.

“The legal basis for automatic facial recognition has been called into question, yet the Government has not accepted that there’s a problem. It must. A legislative framework on the use of these technologies is urgently needed. Current trials should be stopped and no further trials should take place until the right legal framework is in place.”

Further information

Image: Creative commons

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