Home Office biometrics strategy is three years overdue, despite ‘lack of clarity’

Police use of facial recognition technology continues unregulated and unguided as the Home Office has still failed to deliver its biometrics strategy, ahead of an official report due to be published on Friday.

While the Home Office would confirm to The Register that the Biometrics Commissioner’s annual report for 2015 would be published on Friday 11 March, it was unable to state when the promised biometrics strategy would be delivered.

A spokesperson told The Register: “The Biometrics Strategy represents an important opportunity for the Home Office to set out how we will use biometrics to deliver our objectives over the next five years.”

“The Home Office has been working to develop the strategy, which will be published in due course. This is a complex area and we want to ensure the strategy properly sets out our vision for how we will use biometrics in the future,” they added.

Last year, Parliament’s science and technology committee complained that the government’s original joint forensics and biometrics strategy had missed its 2013 publication date. It was not published by the end of 2014, nor by the end of 2015 either.

The committee’s concern was that “in its absence there remains a worrying lack of clarity regarding if, and how, the government intends to employ biometrics for the purposes of verification and identification and whether it has considered any associated ethical and legal implications.”

The committee called on the government to publish a comprehensive strategy by “no later than December 2015”. The Home Office accepted those terms, claiming the government was already “developing two separate but aligned forensic and biometric strategies and remains committed to publishing both strategies by the end of 2015.”

Neither of these strategies have been published, however. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee clerk confirmed to The Register that it was “still waiting”.

Noting the increasing applications police are finding for facial recognition technology, as The Registerrevealed was taking place at Download Festival last year, campaign group Big Brother Watch bloggedthat “the urgency for guidance on the correct use of the technology will grow. The Home Office should not assume this technology will simply sort itself out, they need to be proactive.”

“As with so many of these technologies the negatives are often obscured, but when there is no regulation in place to protect innocent people, these negatives vastly outweigh the benefits. This is why the delay from the Home Office on their Biometric Strategy is such a worry,” wrote Big Brother Watch.

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