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Policing minister wants to use UK passport data in facial recognition

The policing minister’s plans to integrate the UK’s passport database with police facial-recognition systems have been met with criticism from campaigners, academics, and the biometrics commissioner for England and Wales



Policing minister Chris Philp has outlined his intention to give police forces access to the UK’s passport database, claiming it will enhance their facial-recognition capabilities to help catch shoplifters and other criminals.


Speaking at a fringe event of the Conservative Party Conference, Philp told attendees that he plans to integrate data from the police national database (PND), the Passport Office and other national databases to help police find a match with the “click of one button”.


“I’m going to be asking police forces to search all of those databases – the police national database, which has custody images, but also other databases like the passport database – not just for shoplifting, but for crime generally, to get those matches, because the technology is now so good that you can get a blurred image and get a match for it,” he said.


“Operationally, I’m asking them to do it now. In the medium term, by which I mean the next two years, we’re going to try to create a new data platform so you can press one button [and it] lets you search it all in one go.”


Philp added that police forces should search each database separately until the new platform is up and running.


According to the 2021 census, just over 86% of the British public hold at least one passport.




In 2012, a High Court ruling specifically found the retention of custody images in the PND to be unlawful on the basis that information about unconvicted people was being treated in the same way as information about people who were ultimately convicted, and that the six-year retention period was disproportionate.


Speaking to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) in February 2023, the biometric and surveillance camera commissioner for England and Wales, Fraser Sampson, said: “I’m here today saying there are probably several million of those records still,” adding that the response from policing bodies and the Home Office (which owns most of the biometric database used by UK police) is to point out the information is held on a database with no bulk deletion capability.


“I’m not sure that works for public trust and confidence, but even if it did … you can’t [legally] rely on a flaw in a database you built for unlawfully retaining stuff … that’s a technical problem that’s of the country’s and the police’s making rather than the people whose images you’ve kept.”


Karen Yeung, an interdisciplinary professorial fellow in law, ethics and informatics at Birmingham Law School, also questioned the necessity and proportionality of the measure.


“Providing police with routine access to Britain’s passport database to automatically identify those whose images were captured by CCTV as suspected shoplifters, burglars or other kinds of crime, seriously interferes with rights to privacy and data protection,” she said. “These interferences would not meet the tests of necessity and proportionality in a democratic society.”


“This proposal not only reflects a naïve technological solutionism in which digital technologies will readily solve deep-seated social problems, it also displays a reckless disregard for the basic liberties and freedoms of British citizens,” said Yeung.


“It could be taken straight from the playbook of authoritarian states, standing in stark contrast to the calls from over 155 organisations, led by Amnesty, urging the EU to impose a full ban on the use of facial-recognition systems in publicly accessible places under its proposed [artificial intelligence] AI Act.”


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Copyright: Computer Weekly - By Sebastian Klovig Skelton, Senior reporter

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