Minister writes to Committee over concerns about facial recognition technology

19 April 2018

The Science and Technology Committee publishes a letter from Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister of State for Countering Extremism, to Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Committee, which responds to questions raised during the Committee’s session on the yet-to-be-produced Biometrics Strategy.

Letter responds to the Committee’s concerns about facial recognition technology’s oversight, its use at high profile events, and the retention and deletion of images for those not convicted. 

Custody Image Review

The letter explains that while the Custody Image Review (published February 2017) allows those not convicted of an offence to request the deletion of their image from police databases, automated deletion when not convicted of the crime is not possible due to the systems used by police forces. The deletion of images of unconvicted people must be done manually, and doing so will, the minister said, “have significant costs and be difficult to justify given the off-setting reductions [police] forces would be required to find in order to fund it”.

Statistics on the numbers of image deletions

The letter also states that the Home Office does not possess overall statistics on the numbers of image deletions that have occurred as a result of successful requests by individuals not convicted of the relevant crime. An FoI request by the Press Association in 2017 showed few requests for custody image removals had been received, and that deletions were rejected for a third of those that were received.

Chair's comments

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

“Innocent people should rightly expect that images gathered of them in relation to a crime will be removed if they are not convicted. This is increasingly important as police forces step up the use of facial recognition at high profile events – including the Notting Hill Carnival for the past two years.

“The Government is unable to inform us of the number of cases in which images have been deleted, and they tell us that the systems that would be used to do so are not up to the task. It appears that the police are making-do with current systems and practices even if it results in images of innocent people being retained.

““This leaves an unsatisfactory approach to the retention of facial images compared to the approach used for DNA and fingerprint records. The Government should urgently review its approach and put suitable processes and digital infrastructure in place.”

“There is also an issue about whether some individuals even know that their image is on police databases in the first place. We will address all these issue in greater detail in our upcoming report.”

The letter also states that:

  • Unlike DNA or fingerprint records, custody images cannot be deleted automatically from the Police National Database (PND) because it would be necessary to upgrade the 43 local policing systems and the PND.
  • The Home Office will create a board including representatives from the Police and relevant regulators to coordinate and simplify interactions between them.
  • Successful requests for images to be removed from the Violent and Sex Offender Register (VISOR) system, images on VISOR and other police databases must be deleted manually.

Further information

Image: Parliamentary copyright

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