Biometric data watchdog calls for expansion of remit

The Scottish Biometrics Commissioner believes that, given how widely biometric data is used across the nation’s criminal justice system, his oversight should include the likes of prisons and social services

A report from the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Brian Plastow has called for the removal of current restrictions on the areas under the office’s oversight.

The commissioner’s remit currently only includes Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority, and the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.

Biometric data such as DNA, fingerprints and photographs is used across criminal prosecutions, prisons and multi-agency management arrangements for violent and sexual offenders.

However, Plastow says some of these “do not benefit” from independent oversight or the protection provided by the commissioner’s Code of Practice, which is of “concern”.

He believes without a further update, present arrangements could lose public trust.

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“Biometrics are shared between criminal justice partners, between prisons and criminal justice social work to name a few,” he said. “These agencies, and policing, all work closely together and sit within the same ministerial portfolio, so it is my view that the goal should be for them all to be the subject of independent oversight.”

Launched in November, the Code of Practice features 12 principles, including accountability, privacy and protection of the vulnerable, to ensure policing authorities’ use of biometric data is lawful and ethical.

“I would encourage Scottish ministers to give more serious consideration to opportunities to extend the independent oversight of my office and the safeguards of the statutory Code of Practice in Scotland to that whole ecosystem,” Plastow argued.

If the commissioner’s recommendations are forward, data storage in initiatives like the Scottish Government Digital Evidence Sharing Capability would be subject to independent oversight. Other agencies the commissioner would scrutinise are National Crime Agency, British Transport Police and Ministry of Defence Police.

In the coming months, the commissioner’s office will review the use of images which can be held on multiple databases, as there is no mention of this under the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 – the law that allows the police to retain biometric samples. It will also investigate the legal basis under which Police Scotland holds biometric data for criminal justice purposes.

However, after a public attitudes survey revealed “high levels” of confidence on the use of data and the absence of complaints under the Code of Practice up to date, Plastow said: “There are grounds to be confident about the security of biometric data used for policing purposes in Scotland.”

This article originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood

Sofia Villegas

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