The new Home Office Biometrics Strategy

In 1902 Harry Jackson, a 41-year-old petty thief, was arrested and convicted for stealing billiard balls from a house in South London. He had left a visible thumbprint on a freshly-painted windowsill, which was used by Scotland Yard to make its first ever conviction based on fingerprint evidence.

To this day fingerprinting remains a core law enforcement tool, but in 2018 there are many more biometric technologies – DNA and facial images in particular – that the Government has at its disposal, both for law enforcement and for modernising the delivery of public services. To ensure there is an appropriate overarching framework the Home Office has just released its much-delayed Biometrics Strategy.

The strategy lays out how the Home Office and its partners intends to use biometrics to deliver better public services while maintaining public trust, though it does not seek to address all the current or future uses of biometrics, nor how other Government departments will approach the issue. At its heart, the strategy outlines the need for a single biometrics platform, instead of duplicate systems such as near-identical fingerprint databases operated by law enforcement and immigration authorities. It also states that a new oversight and advisory board for facial biometrics will be established.

Industry has a major role to play in delivering biometric technologies, and many ADS members offer specialised capabilities such as advanced digital forensics, identity resolution, and border control technologies; ADS has also engaged with the Home Office Biometrics Programme in recent years. Nonetheless, the strategy makes only a passing reference to the role of the security and resilience sector in delivering emerging technologies such as voice recognition and gait analysis.

In his formal response to the strategy the Biometrics Commissioner raised important questions about the legal framework governing the use of technologies such as automated facial recognition. While biometrics offer a major opportunity to modernise public services and improve national security, public trust must be maintained if new biometric technologies are to achieve wide-spread usage. With appropriate consultation and a clear framework industry can develop biometric technologies at the outset with privacy by design. In that vein, the strategy places a welcome focus on maintaining public confidence and industry will look forward to a continuing discussion with the Home Office on these issues as it develops its use of biometrics in the future.