07 October 2011

Biometrics in UK

The UK Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has published a report on the Protection of Freedoms Bill.

The committee endorses the Bill as providing enhanced human rights protection which the Bill but believes that this protection should be further strengthened.

In relation to powers of entry the committee welcomes the Cameron Government's review of existing powers of entry to private properties, including homes but is "deeply concerned" that the proposals in the Bill could create new risks to individual rights by authorising the Government to extend existing powers of entry or further restrict safeguards. It notes that the Home Office has published a list of around 1200 statutory powers with associated powers of entry.

In relation to biometrics the committee concludes that the provisions regarding biometric material create a less intrusive mechanism for the retention of DNA and fingerprints. The committee however expresses concerns that the Bill creates unjustified risks to the individual right to privacy. It calls on the Government to provide further justification or significantly amend the Bill. The proposed statute provides that DNA profiles and fingerprints taken from innocent people arrested but not charged will be retained in "prescribed circumstances" for up to 5 years. The committee concludes that in some cases this may create a significant risk of incompatibility with the right to privacy and calls for further evidence that this approach is justifiable.

The committee criticises a proposal that the police should have a broad discretion to retain biometric material – by means of unlimited 2 year renewals – for reasons of national security. It concludes that the Minister has not shown this to be proportionate or necessary. Major winding back of powers regarding retention was promised by the Government in announcing abandonment of the UK National Identity Card scheme shortly after the national election, an announcement critiqued in an article by this author in Privacy Law Bulletin at that time.

It calls on the Government to amend the new safeguards in relation to the processing of children’s biometric information, recommending that the Bill be amended to enable children of sufficient maturity and understanding to decide for themselves whether their biometric information should be processed.

The committee welcomes the proposal for a surveillance code to regulate operation of CCTV by public authorities but concludes that in the absence of a final draft it is difficult to assess whether that code will strike an appropriate balance between an individual’s right to a private life and the wider interest of prevention and detection of crime.

The committee welcomes permanent reduction in the maximum period of pre-charge detention of terrorist suspects to 14 days but questions whether the need to provide for a contingency power to extend the period of pre-charge detention beyond 14 days in the event of a future emergency is supported by the evidence.

The committee recommends that the restrictions on the jurisdiction of the Upper Tribunal in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 be repealed to provide for an appeal by those on the barred list.

It also supports amending the Bill to change the Public Order Act 1986 to remove all reference to public order offences based upon insulting words or behaviour. This amendment would enhance human rights and remove possible incompatibilities with the right to freedom of expression.

Committee chair Hywel Francis MP commented that -
We are also concerned that the Government wants to continue to retain the DNA profiles and fingerprints of innocent people who have been arrested then released without a clear justification of why this is necessary or justifiable.

Retention of this type of sensitive material must be governed by a clear statutory framework which limits retention to circumstances which are justified in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime. Unfortunately, the Government’s current proposals for a "catch-all" discretion for police to retain material for undefined reasons of "national security" does not appear to meet that standard.