Police hold more than 20 million facial recognition images

Alexander J Martin, Technology Reporter and Tom Cheshire, Technology Correspondent - Exclusive

Sky News has learned more than 20 million facial recognition images are being held by police in the UK.

Public confidence in law enforcement is being undermined by the lack of laws controlling the police's use of facial recognition technology, the independent Biometrics Commissioner has warned.

In his first public comments since taking office, Professor Paul Wiles told Sky News the Government's delays in developing rules to address the police's growing databases of innocent citizens' facial images risked damaging the UK's model of policing by consent.

The police currently hold "beyond 20 million images" of Britons' faces, said Professor Wiles, a former scientific adviser to government who has held the watchdog position since June 2016.

Police databases of facial images include those of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens.

:: Legal questions surround police use of facial recognition

The Government has told the police they do not need to delete these images, despite a High Court ruling in 2012 which said it was unlawful for the police to retain them.

Professor Wiles told Sky News there was a "real danger" that without intervention the number of facial images held by police "will go on increasing and… undermine confidence in policing."

In addition to the growing size of the police facial image databases, the unregulated use of facial recognition technologies connected to those databases was also challenging the public's trust in the authorities.

Automated facial recognition software, which can identify individuals from live CCTV footage, is controversially being used for the second time at this year's Notting Hill Carnival despite concerns from MPs and civil liberties groups over whether the technology could be illegal.

Acknowledging facial recognition software was "an intrusion on privacy", the commissioner told Sky News ahead of Carnival that the police should not have been left to strike the balance between public benefits and individual privacy themselves.

"I think it's a question in a democracy for Parliament to decide," he told Sky News, noting the Government's biometrics strategy, which would potentially allow Parliament to debate the issue, was now four years late.

"I think it's now got to the point where it really is urgent for the Government to publish that strategy and say whether it intends to create a legislative framework for the use of facial images," Professor Wiles said.

Norman Lamb MP, the Liberal Democrat chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, told Sky News that "the public has a right to be part of this" debate regarding facial recognition.

"Parliament should be the fulcrum of that, but we should have the widest possible discussion to ensure that people feel reassured and satisfied that this technology is going to be used properly," he said.

The comments come as civil liberties group Big Brother Watch launches a campaign to end the retention of innocent people's custody images, arguing that the practice is unnecessary as well as unlawful.

Big Brother Watch's chief executive, Renate Samson, said: "We live in a society where people are innocent until proven guilty. Being arrested does not make a person guilty of a crime.

"It is time the Government gave custody images and facial biometrics the same protection as fingerprints and DNA and ensured automatic deletion is standard when a person is released without charge."

A Home Office spokesperson told Sky News: "Facial searching plays an important role in the detection and prevention of crime. There is a clear need to strike a balance between protecting an individual's privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe.

"For this reason we published the Custody Image Review in February 2017 under which people not convicted of an offence have the right to request that a custody image is deleted from all police databases, with a general presumption that it must be removed, unless there is an exceptional reason for it to be retained."

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