The UK government’s Home Office released a report this week announcing plans for a forthcoming centralized biometric database of its citizens, compiling DNA, fingerprint, face, and possibly even voice data for law enforcement to access and share, according to the Telegraph. In addition to helping local police solve crimes, the Home Office report also proposes using the centralized database for vetting migrants at borders and verifying Visa applications. Pushback has been swift, as civil rights groups argue that face recognition is faulty, dubiously legal, and often collected without public consent.
The Home Office’s “Biometrics Strategy” report, commissioned four years ago but released this week, makes a series of recommendations for how the UK government should collect, analyze, and regulate biometric data. Police, immigration, and passport agencies already collect DNA, face, and fingerprint data—the government’s face database has 12.5 million people, the Telegraph reported—but this would be the first time the UK centralizes it. The Home Office caused a scandal in April when an official said it would be too expensive to remove innocent people from its criminal face databases of mugshots.
“The implementation of a single biometrics platform will remove duplication and costly or inefficient workarounds in operational delivery,” the report reads. “This platform is not a new data set, rather a technical platform through which existing data can be more efficiently dealt with. This will also make it easier to use biometric data more widely across the Home Office, operational bodies such as police forces and the National Crime Agency, other Government Departments and international partners. By bringing these together, HOB will deliver biometric services that will enable greater operational efficiency, flexibility, integration and automation.”
As in the US, without tangible federal regulation, there are many opportunities for the misuse of biometric data. What does it mean when the Home Office says its collection of biometric data will be “lawful,” when the laws themselves remain unclear on how to ethically collect, store, or share biometric data?
“In addition to addressing concerns with the oversight of facial biometric applications, we will develop options to simplify and extend governance and oversight of biometrics through consultation with stakeholders over the next 12 months,” reads the report.
Norman Lamb, Chair of the UK’s Science and Technology Committee, criticized the report, saying it only delays real policymaking on the issue.
“The ‘Strategy’ seems to boil down to setting up an advisory ‘board’ to suggest policy recommendations to Government,” the Telegraph quotes Lamb as saying, “rather than telling us what actions the Government will take and, just as importantly, what outcomes it wants to avoid.”
A centralized, government biometric database is a nightmare scenario for many in the privacy space. Police have access to CCTV cameras embedded throughout public spaces, drones that can avoid detection and track people, and even face recognition designed to pinpoint individuals in large crowds. Without any obstacles, the Home Office can essentially grant itself the right to end anonymity.
Big Brother Watch, a UK-based anti-surveillance group, released a report in May detailing a staggering 90% false positive rate for face recognition in Wales. The group has rallied against police use of face recognition in the UK and the recent bid to collect and use voice data.
“Clearly, the potential for the growth of a gargantuan facial recognition system is a real risk, and arguably would be the natural destination for this technology, if we so uncritically accept its use now.”