Thousands of innocent people in the United Kingdom may be unaware that they can demand their mugshots are deleted from police systems under “unjustifiable” government rules, MPs have said.

The Science and Technology Committee said facial images should be treated the same as fingerprints and DNA, and expressed concern at the Home Office’s “unacceptable” approach, where people who have not been convicted, have to request their image is deleted, rather than it being an automatic process.

Committee chairman Norman Lamb said keeping mugshots of innocent people was a “significant infringement of people’s liberty” and demanded to know why the government had not acted nearly six years after the High Court ruled mass retention was unlawful.

Thousands of innocent people are believed to be among the 21 million images on the Police National Database, of which 12.5 million are in a gallery which can be searched using facial recognition software.

A Home Office review last year said unconvicted individuals should have the right to apply for the deletion of their custody image from all police systems.

However, the cross-party report said: “The Government’s approach is unacceptable because unconvicted individuals may not know that they can apply for their images to be deleted, and because those whose image has been taken should not have less protection than those whose DNA or fingerprints have been taken.”

Only 67 requests for custody image removals were made up to October last year to forces in England and Wales.

Mr Lamb, a Liberal Democrat former minister, said: “Large scale retention of the facial images of innocent people amounts to a significant infringement of people’s liberty without any national framework in place and without a public debate about the case for it.

“The Government must urgently set out the legal basis for its current on-request process of removing images of innocent people. It is unjustifiable to treat facial recognition data differently to DNA or finger print data.”

Under new rules, people who are not convicted of any offence can demand their custody image be deleted, unless there is an “exceptional reason” for keeping it.

Forces should automatically review all pictures held after specified periods but the Home Office decided against imposing a “weeding out” exercise to identify those which should no longer be retained.

Ministers claimed it was too expensive to delete millions of mugshots as it would have to be done manually by local police forces, The Independent recently revealed.

Campaigners and watchdogs have raised questions about the approach, which are echoed by the committee.

Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, said: “It’s been years since the retention of these images was ruled unlawful – and the Government goes on knowingly breaking the law. Meanwhile the potential for privacy violations and unjustified police interventions grows graver and graver, with police rolling out intrusive and inaccurate surveillance technologies like facial recognition, which can be used in conjunction with vast databases like these.

“This cross-party report shows all too starkly the risks this broken system continues to pose to the public’s rights. The Government must urgently introduce an automatic deletion process for photos of activists, bystanders and people not convicted of any crime.”

The independent Biometrics Commissioner, Paul Wiles, previously attacked the government allowing power to remain in the hands of the police and said the public deserved a “presumption of deletion”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We expect the new police IT systems that we are putting in place will be able to automatically delete custody images by linking them to conviction status, as is the case with fingerprints and DNA.

“We understand the need to strike a balance between protecting an individual’s privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe. The storing of custody images helps police solve crime but it must be done in a way that is legal, ethical and transparent.”

 

The Independent