A Risk to Public Trust? Police to Access Passport Photos

The government’s plan to allow police officers to use passport photos to catch criminals will risk damaging public trust, says the UK’s surveillance camera commissioner, the BBC reports.

Policing minister Chris Philp said he wants police to have access to a wider range of databases, claiming a new data platform could achieve this within the next two years.

However, concerns have surfaced that this will provoke distrust between the police and the public. One such worry is from Professor Fraser Sampson, who says the government plan could make passport holders feel as if they were in a “digital line-up”.

Expanding The Police Database

Currently, photos on the police national database are limited to individuals who have been arrested.

While the police can check images from dashcam and doorbell technologies, as well as home and business security cameras, against the national database, they do not have access to every member of the public’s passport photo.

At the Conservative Party conference earlier this week, Mr Philip said: “I’m going to be asking police forces to search all of those databases — the police national database, which has custody images, but also other databases like the passport database.”

The plan has been suggested to aid the police in catching criminals, but the well-intentioned motives for the move have not managed to quell concerns.

Professor Sampson said the plan may make people feel as though they are in a “digital line-up”, with officers being able to “press one button” and “search it all.”

“The state has large collections of good quality photographs of a significant proportion of the population – drivers and passport holders being good examples – which were originally required and given as a condition of, say, driving and international travel.

If the state routinely runs every photograph against every picture of every suspected incident of crime simply because it can there is a significant risk of disproportionality and of damaging public trust,” he said.

The Right Course of Action?

Professor Sampson is not the only one who has raised concerns over passport photos being included in the police’s database. The civil liberties groups, who have already raised concerns about the existing use of facial recognition technology by the police, said using passport photos risks exacerbating them.

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, the civil rights group, said: “The commissioner is entirely right to warn about the expansion of facial recognition technology,

“History has told us this technology will be used disproportionately by the police to monitor and harass minority groups, and particularly people of colour. Expanding it will put many more people in harm’s way.”

Michael Birtwistle, associate director at the Ada Lovelace Institute, also described the proposals as “concerning” because the “accuracy and scientific basis of facial recognition technologies is highly contested, and their legality is uncertain.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the negative public reaction to previous attempts to repurpose personal data, such as GP surgery records. We urge the government to reconsider these proposals,” he finished.

Furthermore, questions have been raised over whether the increased use of technology is the right course of action to tackle crime. After all, driving up crime detection rates could be achieved by increasing the number of police officers available to investigate offences.

Also at the Tory party conference, Paul Gerrard, director of public affairs at the Co-op Group, said that the police routinely did not visit its shops after a theft had taken place – regardless of the level of evidence available.

Mr Gerrard said a freedom of information request by Co-op showed that the police failed to attend in more than 70% of serious retail crimes reported.

That was despite staff members suffering more than 900 assaults in the first eight months of the year, and stock worth an estimated £70m being stolen annually.

The Home Office said the government was “committed to making sure the police have the tools and technology they need to solve and prevent crimes, bring offenders to justice, and keep people safe.”

It said: “Technology such as facial recognition can help the police quickly and accurately identify those wanted for serious crimes, as well as missing or vulnerable people.

“It also frees up police time and resources, meaning more officers can be out on the beat, engaging with communities and carrying out complex investigations.”