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Government approach to facial imaging unacceptable

25 May 2018

The Science and Technology Committee publishes report on Biometric strategy and forensics services.

The report states that the Government's approach to the deletion of images of innocent people is unacceptable, and questions the legality of the Police's ‘deletion on application' (rather than automatic) process.

Furthermore, it calls on the Government to reproduce a new Forensics Strategy, based on inadequacies in the previous Strategy which were highlighted in the recent Randox case.


The report notes:

  • The 2012 'RMC' ruled that it is unlawful to hold custody images without making a distinction between those who are convicted and those who are not, but the Home Office has not introduced an automatic deletion system, reflecting current weaknesses in IT systems and a concern about the potential cost of a comprehensive manual deletion process.
  • The Government's approach is unacceptable because unconvicted individuals may not know that they can apply for their images to be deleted, and because those whose image has been taken should not have less protection than those whose DNA or fingerprints have been taken.
  • There are important ethical issues involved in the collection, use and retention of facial images in particular because they can easily be taken and stored without the subject's knowledge and because various image databases already include 90% of the adult population between them.
  • The Government-promised Biometrics Strategy should also set out the Home Office's assessment of the lawfulness of its deletion-on-application process, and the legal advice underpinning that assessment.

Chair's comments

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

"In the four years since the Government promised to produce a Biometrics Strategy, the Home Office and Police have developed a process for collecting, retaining, and reusing facial images that some have called unlawful."

"Large scale retention of the facial images of innocent people amounts to a significant infringement of people's liberty without any national framework in place and without a public debate about the case for it. The Government must urgently set out the legal basis for its current on-request process of removing images of innocent people. It is unjustifiable to treat facial recognition data differently to DNA or finger print data”

“It should urgently review the IT systems being developed and ensure that they will be able to deliver an automated deletion system, or else move now to introduce comprehensive manual deletion that is fit for purpose."


The report notes:

  • Concerns about the sustainability of the forensics market have continued, with the collapse of private sector providers* in recent months. The Police are unduly focusing on cutting costs, leading to the fragmentation of testing.
  • Accreditation of forensics providers remains vitally important in maintaining the confidence of the courts and the public in the evidence used in the criminal justice system, but not all providers are meeting the Regulator's accreditation deadlines. The Randox case last year has demonstrated the importance of all forensic providers becoming fully accredited and the need for rigorous auditing of standards compliance.
  • The Forensics Strategy requires re-evaluation. The Government should revise, re-issue and consult on a new version, and in doing so address the forensics requirements of the civil courts, as well as the criminal justice system, and how the Regulator's role could be extended into that area.

Chair's comments

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

"The police are prioritising low price forensics over maintaining high standards where forensics providers have a sustainable future and where tests related to court cases are not fragmented between individual forensics labs.

"The Government should produce a new Forensics Strategy that addresses the real concerns over testing fragmentation and provider accreditation, as was highlighted in the Randox fiasco last year."

*  The Forensics Telecommunications Services ceased trading in 2017, the Key Forensics Services almost collapsed, before being sold on, in Jan 2018, Contact Traces closed in 2017.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto