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.”