Biometrics Commissioner calls for debate in wake of Home Office strategy report

The long-awaited Home Office Biometrics Strategy “is to be welcomed” as the basis for a more informed public debate on the future use of biometrics by the Home Office and its partners, suggests Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles, but he feels that “the strategy says little about what future plans the Home Office has for the use of biometrics and the sharing of biometric data”.

On that basis, Wiles suggests that a debate is needed given the rapid improvements in biometric matching technologies and the increasing ability to hold and analyse large biometric databases.

The 27-page Home Office Biometrics Strategy sets out the overarching framework within which organisations in the Home Office sector will consider and make decisions on the use and development of biometric technology.

There are robust governance and oversight arrangements for well-established biometrics and the Home Office is fully committed to developing this framework to ensure the effective governance of new biometric technologies.

Loss of privacy

However, Wiles commented: “While the use of biometric data may well be in the public interest for law enforcement purposes and to support other Government functions, the public benefit must be balanced against loss of privacy. Biometric data is especially sensitive because it’s most intrusive of our individual privacy and, for that reason, who decides the balance is as important as what is decided. Legislation carries the legitimacy that Parliament decides that crucial question.”

The Biometrics Commisioner continued: “It’s disappointing that the Home Office document is not forward looking as one would expect from a strategy. In particular, it doesn’t propose legislation to provide rules for the use and oversight of new biometrics, including facial images. This is in contrast to Scotland where such legislation has been proposed. Given that new biometrics are being rapidly deployed or trialled, this failure to set out more definitively what the future landscape will look like in terms of the use and governance of biometrics appears to be short-sighted at best.”

What the strategy does propose is an Advisory Board to make recommendations about governance just short of legislation. If that results in the development of a set of principles to inform future legislation then Wiles feels this is also to be welcomed. “However, the Advisory Board is mainly described as concerned with the use of facial images by the police. What’s actually required is a governance framework that will cover all future biometrics rather than a series of ad hoc responses to problems as they emerge. I hope that the Home Office will re-consider and clearly extend the Advisory Board’s remit to properly consider all future biometrics and will name the Board accordingly.”

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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