The UK’s crime and policing minister, Chris Philp, has announced plans to utilize the nation’s passport database, comprising more than 45 million facial images, for identifying suspects in criminal investigations.
While police already have access to the passport database, a new data platform is being developed to streamline its use, with an expected launch within the next two years. This platform aims to integrate various databases, including biometrics for foreign nationals, enabling law enforcement to search for matches using images from CCTV, doorbell cameras, or dashcams.
Furthermore, the move follows complaints from retail industry executives about the police’s failure to respond to violent attacks and thefts, with statistics revealing that over 54% of reported shoplifting crimes last year had unidentified suspects.
Additionally, the use of facial recognition technology in the UK currently lacks specific legislation, unlike other forms of biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA, which are subject to legal controls. Police in the country can run facial recognition technology on the Police National Database, containing mugshot images of previously arrested individuals.
However, the real-time use of this technology, comparing images of passers-by against a database of wanted persons, has raised concerns about the potential for innocent people to be wrongly identified. An independent study sponsored by London’s Metropolitan Police found that four out of every five matches produced by such systems are inaccurate. Civil liberties organizations have contested the legality of the technology’s use, as highlighted by the Court of Appeal’s ruling in 2020 against South Wales Police using live facial recognition technology to identify suspects in crowds.
Privacy advocates have expressed concerns over the government’s expansion of data usage, particularly in integrating private dashcam footage, the immigration and asylum system, and the passport database, viewing it as an infringement on British privacy principles and the potential creation of a vast police database without consent or objection from passport holders.