It is over a year since we published our last Report on biometrics and forensics. We are deeply disappointed by how little has been achieved by the Government since then.
Not only has there been no improvement in the situation of the forensics market—the Forensic Science Regulator has highlighted that the situation has got worse in many respects. This is wholly unacceptable. We remain seriously concerned about the long-term viability of the market for forensic science services and the significant risk that this poses to the effective functioning of a criminal justice system. The Government should work with the Forensic Science Regulator to develop her proposals for a National Forensic Science Capability. This should focus on those forensic disciplines where skills were threatened and/or already insufficient. The National Forensic Science Capability should also ensure that cyber security standards and protection are strictly applied and secure data back-up of information is routinely and securely stored.
In the face of an unstable forensics market which has been on the brink of collapse, and the clear need to uphold quality standards across forensic services, the Regulator—now more than ever—needs statutory powers. The Government professes to “strongly support” the Forensic Science Regulator Bill yet it has not taken any active steps to facilitate its passage through Parliament. Nor are we reassured that it has contingency plans in place to ensure a similar Bill is afforded a legislative slot in the next Parliamentary session. This is unacceptable. The Government has failed to show leadership and pass what is ultimately an uncontroversial piece of legislation but which is vital for the effective administration of justice. The Home Office should apply for a legislative slot for a Forensic Science Regulator Bill in the next Parliamentary Session.
Although the Biometrics Strategy has been published—five years after it was first promised—the Biometrics Commissioner has called it a ‘missed opportunity’. We would argue it is not really a strategy at all, lacking a coherent, forward looking vision and failing to address the legislative vacuum around new biometrics. The UK Government should learn from the Scottish Government’s approach to biometrics and commission an independent review of options for the use and retention of biometric data that is not currently covered by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The results of the review should be published along with a Government Response, and a public consultation on the Government’s proposed way forward should follow. This process should culminate in legislation being brought forward that seeks to govern current and future biometric technologies.
It is now seven years since the 2012 High Court ruled that the indefinite retention of innocent people’s custody images was unlawful and yet the practice is continuing. A system was meant to have been put in place where any custody images were kept for six years and then reviewed. Custody images of unconvicted individuals at that point should be weeded and deleted. It is unclear whether police forces are unaware of the requirement to review custody images every six years, or if they are simply ‘struggling to comply’. What is clear, however, is that they have not been afforded any earmarked resources to assist with the manual review and weeding process. Police forces should give higher priority in the allocation of their resources to ensure a comprehensive manual deletion process of custody images in compliance with national guidance. In turn, the Government should strengthen the requirement for such a manual system to delete custody images and introduce clearer and stronger guidance on the process.
The reason it is so important that the images of unconvicted people are not kept on the police database is because these images can form the basis of ‘watchlists’ for automatic facial recognition technology when used by police forces in public spaces. We reiterate our recommendation from our 2018 Report that automatic facial recognition should not be deployed until concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved. We call on the Government to issue a moratorium on the current use of facial recognition technology and no further trials should take place until a legislative framework has been introduced and guidance on trial protocols, and an oversight and evaluation system, has been established.
Published: 18 July 2019