Watchdogs seek greater oversight of use of facial recognition in prisons

Scottish bodies flag up uses of facial recognition and in English and Welsh institutions

Credit: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay   Image has been cropped

Scotland’s watchdog for prisons and biometrics are keen to work together to provide greater oversight of the use of the facial recognition and other technologies on prisoners, staff and visitors.

In a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee, Brian Plastow – Scotland’s first ever biometrics commissioner – said that he has been told by the country’s chief inspector of prisons Wendy Sinclair-Gieben that, given the specialised subject nature and human rights considerations, she would welcome additional independent oversight of the potential use of the technology in prisons.

A degree of oversight is currently provided by data-protection regulator the Information Commissioner, and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, a watchdog dedicated to covert surveillance.  

The letter claimed that Sinclair-Gieben would welcome further independent input and would like to know if, like some English and Welsh prisons, Scottish institutions are currently employing live facial-recognition technology and other biometrics. 

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In some prisons south of the border, such technology is used to verify the identity of visitors, to assist in managing excluded persons, and to try and prevent drugs and other contraband being smuggled onto the prison estate.  

The UK government revealed in 2019 that they had successfully trialled biometric technology at prisons at Hull, Humber and Lindholme. As well as he tech allowed prison staff to identify visitors using applications based on document validation and iris scanning – as well as facial recognition.

In his letter to Audrey Nicoll, the MSP who serves as convenor of Holyrood’s Criminal Justice Committee, Plastow said: “There is also an emerging trend within prisons in other UK jurisdictions where live facial recognition technology and other biometrics are deployed to verify the identity of visitors, to assist in managing excluded persons, and to assist in the prevention of drugs and other contraband being smuggled onto the prison estate. It would be interesting for the committee to ascertain whether any such technologies are currently deployed in Scottish prisons.”

He added: “I agree with the view expressed by the committee that it would be appropriate for ministers to consider whether biometric data and technologies used in Scottish prisons should fall within the remit and functions of the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner and Code of Practice. Should Scottish ministers wish to explore this possibility in more detail, then I would be more than happy to engage with Scottish Government officials and the Scottish Prison Service in terms of conducting an initial joint feasibility study.”


Sam Trendall

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