Well – the long awaited Government Biometric Strategy was released last week.
This Strategy presumes to set the direction for the use of biometrics by law enforcement agencies and Home Office bodies. It proposes to establish an oversight and advisory group that will seek to provide advice to Government and police about the use of facial imagery. I will consider the detail of the strategy carefully and discuss its contents with key stakeholders.
Of course the Strategy impacts more broadly than the use of biometric technology in the context of surveillance camera systems and accordingly involves my fellow regulators in their various capacities. However, my focus lies on the use of surveillance camera systems including of course facial recognition and other developing technologies. As many readers will be aware I have been heavily engaged in this debate for the past year. Perhaps my recent speech at Taylor Wessing Annual Data conference best illuminates my considerations as to the use of facial recognition by law enforcement and indeed by the private and commercial sector.
Let me start with the positives. The Strategy does at least represent recognition by Government that the rapid march of technological and intrusive capabilities of biometric modalities requires a greater degree of harness, and its launch is a commitment to shape the future application of these capabilities in the public interest. In that regard it represents a starting point. I am also delighted that a key part of the Strategy makes a commitment to update and review the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice itself, something that I have been urging Government to do for some time.
As my fingers hammer the keyboard, the threat of litigation against South Wales Police and the Metropolitan Police by civil rights groups comes into view citing an absence of law to legitimise the use of AFR. At my recent Advisory Council meeting several lawyers across the room were firmly of the view that the new Data Protection Act 2018 provides more robust regulation for the processing of data but does not provide the legal basis to actually gather it by means of surveillance in the first instance. I continue to be engaged with lawyers and civil rights groups around this issue and bring whatever influence I have to bear on policy and lawmakers in this regard. I truly believe that as a mature democracy we are capable of formulating laws, rules and principles that will better enable the use of advancing technologies to the benefit to society and in such a manner from which the public can derive trust and confidence that our civil liberties remain protected. Of course the impact of these modalities goes beyond that of ‘privacy’ alone. In the context of cameras, following the Code is an essential first step to operating in accordance with legislation however on first glance the Strategy appears to miss a trick in that regard.
Initial comments from well informed commentators similarly cite an absence of reference to future legislation, and a pre-occupation with AFR rather than the wider strategic piece about evolving technologies, as being key content vulnerabilities.
My personal commitment arising from the Strategy is to ensure the oversight board is transparent and focuses on a ‘whole system approach’ to the use of this technology. It is my priority to deliver requirements for rigorous audit systems to ensure technology and operator performance is effectively managed and weaknesses identified and eradicated. I hear concerns that face identification technology can discriminate by virtue of inaccuracy on the grounds of race, age and even sexuality. Within the Code I have a specific role in the provision of advice regarding ‘validation’ of such systems. Any approach to using this technology that does not effectively deal with these issues will not be valid.
I will press the police and Home Office to look at ‘type approval’ for this technology so that citizens can have reassurance that the technology in use is rigorously assessed against known and recognised standards. Under the umbrella of the National Surveillance Camera Strategy (England and Wales) I have already asked British Standards Institute to begin work on a suite of standards for the use of this technology.
All in all, a first step albeit tentative in nature and a long way yet to go. At least we have a start.