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June 17, 2022


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UK Government scraps plans to move Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner functions to ICO

The Government has scrapped plans to move several key functions of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s role into the hands of the ICO data regulator. Professor Fraser Sampson, the current Commissioner, has praised the move, though has warned it is “only a job half done”.

In particular, Sampson underlined the sensible decision not to hand oversight of police use of DNA and fingerprints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The plan to move oversight of police use of biometrics appeared late last year in a major government consultation called: Data: A New Direction. Several respondents, including the Professor Sampson, told the government that, for various reasons, it was a bad idea.

Today, in its formal response to that consultation, the Government said: “In light of this feedback and wider engagement, including with the current Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and law enforcement partners, the government… has decided not to transfer these functions to the ICO…”

Professor Sampson said: “It’s a sensible decision, as far as it goes. But the Government’s response needs detail on what they plan to do now with these particular important functions. I won’t be in a position to offer any meaningful observations until they have something solid and sensible to say about what will come next in terms of providing strong, principled and independent oversight in these important areas.


Professor Fraser Sampson, UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner

“We now have an opportunity to come up with something really good, not only in relation to DNA and fingerprints, but also in relation to other existing and emerging biometric technology such as live facial recognition.

“We are talking about technologies that, it seems to me and many others, are going to play larger and larger roles in all our lives. We need a way of keeping step with fast-paced change in these areas in order to provide the public with the reassurance they need that this tech will be used lawfully, responsibly and according to set of clear bright line principles that will ensure the circumstances of their use are dictated by what society agrees is acceptable and not just what technology makes possible.”

The Government response says it will explore whether the existing Investigatory Powers Commissioner, can instead take on some of the Biometrics Commissioner’s functions.

Professor Sampson said: “As Biometrics Commissioner I independently oversee the use of investigatory powers involving biometric material, ensuring they are used in accordance with the law and in the public interest. This description is almost identical to that of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, and it makes far more sense for any transfer to go in that direction. Although who would be taking the over 100 decisions per month on National Security Determinations is not yet clear.”

“If Parliament decides to move the functions, the next necessary step in simplification will be to have one definition of biometrics. At the moment ‘biometrics’ in policing only covers the traditional fingerprints and DNA while schools have a wider but less regulated definition. ‘Next generation biometrics’ such as facial recognition, iris, vascular patterns, hormones and gait are as much ‘biometrics’ as our fingerprints and are – as we heard at the event in London just this week – a matter of growing public concern.

“In addition, almost all the capability in this area is privately owned, requiring our private sector technology partners to demonstrate that they can be trusted in respect of their security arrangements and their ethical values. Not only would this simplify things, it would also bring the UK into line with many other countries with whom we share biometrics for law enforcement and national security purposes.”

The government’s consultation response also said it would seek to remove “duplication” between the ICO and Surveillance Camera Commissioner aspect of Professor Sampson’s dual role.


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