Government scraps plans to take away Sampson’s powers

June 17, 2022

THE Government has scrapped plans to hand key functions of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Professor Fraser Sampson, faced the prospect of oversight of police use of DNA and fingerprinting being given to the ICO data regulator.

The proposal to move the functions emerged in late 2021 after a Government consultation called Data: A New Direction.

But industry experts and academics, including Prof Sampson, warned it would be unwise.

A Government statement released today stated: “In the light of this feedback and wider engagement, including with the current Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and law enforcement partners, the government… has decided not to transfer these functions to the ICO.”

Professor Sampson said: “It’s a sensible decision, as far as it goes. But the government’s response needs detail on what they plan to do now with these particular important functions.

“I won’t be in a position to offer any meaningful observations until they have some specifics about what will come next in terms of providing strong, principled, and independent oversight in these important areas. 

“We now have an opportunity to come up with something really good, not only in relation to DNA and fingerprints, but also in relation to other existing and emerging biometric technology such as live facial recognition.” 

However, the government response says it will explore whether the existing Investigatory Powers Commissioner, can instead take on some of the Biometrics Commissioner’s functions.

Professor Sampson added: “As Biometrics Commissioner, I independently oversee the use of investigatory powers involving biometric material, ensuring they are used in accordance with the law and in the public interest.

“This description is almost identical to that of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, and it makes far more sense for any transfer to go in that direction which was not an option in the original consultation questions although who would be taking the 100 plus decisions per month on National Security Determinations is not yet clear.”

He argued there must be a sharper definition of the term ‘biometrics’.

Prof Sampson added: “At the moment, ‘biometrics’ in policing only covers the traditional fingerprints and DNA while schools have a wider but less regulated definition.

“‘Next generation biometrics’ such as facial recognition, iris, vascular patterns, hormones and gait are as much ‘biometrics’ as our fingerprints, and are – as we heard at the event in London on ‘Legitimacy of facial recognition in policing and law enforcement’ just this week – a matter of growing public concern.” 

“In addition, almost all the capability in this area is privately owned, requiring our private sector technology partners to demonstrate that they can be trusted in respect of their security arrangements and their ethical values. Not only would this simplify things, it would also bring the UK into line with many other countries with whom we share biometrics for law enforcement and national security purposes.”

He added: “

The commissioner’s functions flow directly from the Secretary of State’s duty to publish a Code of Practice for the surveillance of public space. If that duty were to be transferred to the Information Commissioner, it would follow that responsibility for compliance might sit with them, although many of the public’s concerns about the expansion in state surveillance are not data protection issues at all.

The acid test for any framework for the police use of biometric and overt surveillance technology will be how far it allows us to know that their technical capabilities (what is possible) are only being used for legitimate purposes (what is permissible) and in a way that the affected community is prepared to support (what is acceptable).”

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