UK passport images database could be used to catch shoplifters

<span>Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA</span>
Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA

Britain’s passport database could be used to catch shoplifters, burglars and other criminals under urgent plans to curb crime, the policing minister has said.

Chris Philp said he planned 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”.

But civil liberty campaigners have warned the plans would be an “Orwellian nightmare” that amount to a “gross violation of British privacy principles”.

Foreign nationals who are not on the passport database could also be found via the immigration and asylum biometrics system, which will be part of an amalgamated system to help catch thieves.

The measures have been deemed controversial by campaigners as the technology could get a match even if images are blurred or partially obscured.

Speaking at a fringe event of the Conservative party conference hosted by the Policy Exchange thinktank, Philp said: “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.

“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 and create a new data platform so you can press one button [and it] lets you search it all in one go.

Until the new platform is created, he said police forces should search each database separately.

Liberty has criticised the government for attempting to turn the British public into “border guards and watchmen”, saying it fuels the “politics of division”.

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at the campaign group, said: “Time and time again the government has relied on the social issue of the day to push through increasingly authoritarian measures. And that’s just what we’re seeing here with these extremely worrying proposals to encourage the police to scan our faces as we go to buy a pint of milk and trawl through our personal information.

“By enabling the police to use private dashcam footage, as well as the immigration and asylum system, and passport database, the government are turning our neighbours, loved ones, and public service officials into border guards and watchmen.

“Instead of ramping up the use of oppressive policing tools like facial recognition, the government should ensure that families can pay their rent and feed their children. That starts with supporting people who are struggling to survive amid a cost of living crisis, an inadequate welfare system and rocketing food prices.”

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Philp’s plan to subvert Brits’ passport photos into a giant police database is Orwellian and a gross violation of British privacy principles. It means that over 45 million of us with passports who gave our images for travel purposes will, without any kind of consent or the ability to object, be part of secret police lineups.

“To scan the population’s photos with highly inaccurate facial recognition technology and treat us like suspects is an outrageous assault on our privacy that totally overlooks the real reasons for shoplifting. Philp should concentrate on fixing broken policing rather than building an automated surveillance state.

“We will look at every possible avenue to challenge this Orwellian nightmare.”

The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said: “These proposals are a threat to our fundamental civil liberties. We shall oppose them every step of the way.”

Philp also called on the public to make citizen’s arrests if they catch shoplifters, as he claimed things could “escalate” if thieves were left physically unchallenged.

It comes after a coalition of businesses and workers called on police officers to commit to tackling unprecedented levels of theft amid reports officers are not turning up to deal with violent attacks on shop staff because the criminal had already fled.

Shop thefts have more than doubled in the past six years, reaching 8m in 2022, the British Retail Consortium estimates.

Philp said he has already ordered police forces that have access to the passport database to start searching it alongside the police national database, which stores custody images.

Officers will be able to compare those facial images against CCTV, dashcam and doorbell technology to help find a match for criminals as prosecution rates are at record lows.

He later added: “I would also just remind everyone that the wider public, including shop staff and security guards, do have the power of citizen’s arrest and where it’s safe to do so I would encourage that to be used. Because if you do just let people walk in and take stuff and walk out without proper challenge, including potentially a physical challenge, then it will just escalate.”