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.”
Responding to questions from Computer Weekly about whether Philp’s comments were official policy or something he was saying in a personal capacity, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to making sure the police have the tools and technology they need to solve and prevent crimes, bring offenders to justice and keep people safe.
“Technology such as facial recognition can help the police quickly and accurately identify those wanted for serious crimes, as well as missing or vulnerable people,” they said. “It also frees up police time and resources, meaning more officers can be out on the beat, engaging with communities and carrying out complex investigations.
“We are working with policing to enable seamless searching of relevant images where it is necessary and proportionate for them to do so to investigate crime and protect the public.”
In response to Philp’s comments, Sampson told the BBC it’s important for police to avoid giving people the impression they’re on a “digital lineup”.
“The state has large collections of good-quality photographs of a significant proportion of the population – drivers and passport holders being good examples – which were originally required and given as a condition of, say, driving and international travel,” he said.
“If the state routinely runs every photograph against every picture of every suspected incident of crime simply because it can, there is a significant risk of disproportionality and of damaging public trust.”
Speaking with Computer Weekly, he added that one significant risk from large, state-operated databases lies in the aggregated effect of having pulled so much information into one place.
“Once you add information from all government databases, such as driver and vehicle licensing, and Automatic Number Plate Recognition logging vehicle registration numbers and movements, you have a hugely intrusive and sprawling visibility of citizens the vast majority of whom are beyond any reasonable suspicion,” he said. “If anyone still believes the adage that ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to worry about’, they have completely misunderstood the issue.”
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, described Philp’s plans as an “Orwellian nightmare”, noting that it would be a “gross violation” of UK privacy rights. “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,” she said.
“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.”
Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at the campaign group, added: “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.”
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.”
Urgent need for biometric regulation
Michael Birtwistle, associate director of law and policy at the Ada Lovelace Institute, said the accuracy, scientific basis and legality of facial recognition technologies are still highly contested, and outlined the need for specific legal framework to govern the use of biometrics in the UK.
“The Ada Lovelace Institute commissioned Matthew Ryder KC to review the legal governance of biometric technologies, which found that the current legal framework is not fit for purpose, due to a fragmented and confusing patchwork of laws,” he said.
“Parliamentary Select Committees, the Biometrics Commissioner and other experts all agree on the need to establish proper governance mechanisms before these technologies can be used,” said Birtwistle. “The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto acknowledged these concerns, promising that police technologies would be used safely ‘within a strict legal framework’.
“To expand the deployment of facial recognition to a database containing images of 45 million members of the British public, without their consent and without the existence of such a framework, would risk creating unprecedented public backlash, setting back trust in public sector use of data and AI.”
In a report that was sent to the Home Office in November 2022 and published on February 2023, Sampson previously called for clear, comprehensive and coherent frameworks to regulate police use of AI and biometrics in the UK, noting that there has been an “explosion of capability in AI-driven biometric surveillance”.
Both Parliament and civil society have also repeatedly called for new legal frameworks to govern law enforcement’s use of biometrics – including a House of Lords inquiry into police use of advanced algorithmic technologies; the UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission; the former biometrics commissioner Paul Wiles; and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which called for a moratorium on live facial recognition as far back as July 2019.
However, the government maintains that there is “already a comprehensive framework” in place.