By Masha Borak
Police in the UK have been using the country’s passport holder database to conduct facial recognition searches without public disclosure, a new investigation has revealed, sparking fears over privacy.
The secretive practice has been going on since 2019, according to records obtained by The Telegraph and Liberty Investigates. The facial recognition searches were conducted even though policing minister Chris Philp did not mention the possibility of using the passport database until October 2023.
The majority of the biometric searches were conducted during the first nine months of last year when police authorities used the technology to trawl through passport images more than 300 times. The database holds records of 46 million British passport holders. Forces have also carried out searches of the UK immigration database, which holds information on foreign nationals, the investigation showed.
The Home Office has defended the practice, noting that the searches were conducted for the most serious offenses.
“This technology significantly helped progress numerous investigations including those for murder, rape and assault,” the Metropolitan Police, which is responsible for almost one-third of passport searches, told The Telegraph.
This may not be the case for much longer. During his speech in October, Minister Philps suggested using the passport database to catch shoplifters. In December, it also emerged that a clause in the upcoming UK criminal justice bill could allow police to use facial recognition to search the database of Britain’s 50 million driving licenses.
The new revelation has sparked concerns among members of the British parliament and watchdogs, with the office of Information Commissioner John Edwards promising to raise the issue with the Home Office. Non-governmental organizations which have been campaigning against the police use of facial recognition, such as Big Brother Watch, have also condemned the practice.
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The UK still lacks a dedicated legal framework with some experts questioning whether the use of the technology has a sound legal basis. In December, the UK Parliament’s Justice and Home Affairs Committee conducted a probe against police deployment of live facial recognition.
Facial recognition use still spreading throughout the UK
UK police have been ramping up the use of the technology during 2023, including live facial recognition trials conducted during the British Grand Prix and King Charles III’s coronation. Further rollouts are expected in 2024.
After newly installed facial recognition cameras led to the arrest of 10 people near the railway station in the London town of Croydon in December, more cameras may be coming to the city of York and the North Yorkshire region.
Conservative mayor candidate Keane Duncan said that the pilot deployment could be as early as this year, according to the York Press.
“Starting with pilots in our biggest settlements of York, Harrogate and Scarborough, we would be able to assess the effectiveness of the program, before looking to a potential broader rollout,” said the candidate, who will be participating in May’s local elections.
But the technology is also seeing resistance in some parts of the country. In December, 11 members of the Welsh parliament signed a letter directed to the South Wales Police chief expressing apprehension over live facial recognition deployment.
Source: Biometric Update
Masha Borak is a technology journalist. Her work has appeared in Wired, Business Insider, Rest of World, and other media outlets. Previously she reported for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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