Coronavirus Act review: Government ends extended storage of individuals’ biometric data ‘for national security purposes’

Assessment of emergency law also reveals successful use of tech in justice system and for registering deaths

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Authorities will no longer be permitted to store for longer than the usual statutory maximum period the biometric data of individuals suspected of posing a threat to national security.

The Coronavirus Act was passed into law one year ago today. The legislation introduced a number of extraordinary and emergency measures and new powers designed to support pandemic response. All of these are legislated to be in place for no more than two years, and subject to a review after one year – which was published this week. 

Although the majority of the provisions made in the act will remain in place for the remainder of the act’s lifespan, 12 of them are being ended.

One of those that is being retired granted new powers enabling the government to store individuals’ DNA and fingerprint data for “up to an additional six months beyond normal statutory retention deadlines” – which is typically six months. This provision applied in cases where the data in question was “held for national security purposes”; a total of 1,200 sets of biometric data have come under the scope of the revised laws.

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According to the government, the extended storage period for this information has been an effective tool for authorities.

“It has supported the overall Covid19 response by enabling the police to maintain business as usual in relation to the reviews of intelligence required to retain biometric data,” the review said.

However, keeping these powers in place beyond this month would require new and separate legislation to be passed. They will thus be revoked.

“This provision has successfully mitigated the risk of a critical national security capability being compromised because of the pandemic, including the risk of losing the biometrics of up to 150 individuals per month – many of whom could be subjects of national security interest,” the review said. “However, this power cannot be extended beyond… March without primary legislation and, therefore, it will be expired as part of the one-year review as it has served its original purpose.”

Courts in the act
Elsewhere, the review claimed that various legislative measures to support greater use of tech in public services have been a success.

This includes allowing courts and tribunals to host cases via video or audio means. More than 750,000 hearings took place remotely in the eight-month period beginning on 24 May 2020, the review said.

“Provisions… were introduced to allow the courts and tribunals system to continue to function throughout the pandemic and ensure that more people were able to access justice,” it added. “Despite the considerable challenges and restrictions that have been in place across the year, the legislative provisions have allowed thousands of hearings to take place since the passing of the act.”

These measures will remain in place, as will those allowing for the registration of deaths to take place over the phone and for related documents to be issued or submitted electronically.

Between April and December last year, 429,000 deaths or stillbirths in England and Wales – equating to 95% of the total – were registered via telephone.

The provisions allowing this to happen have not only lowered the risk of transmission, but have helped in “preventing delays to the death-management process and associated pressures building on the health service”, according to the review.

“The ability to register a death by telephone has been widely welcomed especially by the bereaved as it enables them to make the necessary arrangements without needing to travel,” it added. “This, along with the ability to transfer documents electronically, has helped ensure the timely registration of deaths and avoided onward delays in the death-management process.”


Sam Trendall

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