Police face a raft of potential legal challenges after photographs of hundreds of thousands of people were loaded on to an intelligence database without them having been charged or convicted of a crime.
A database of police mugshots from police stations contains some 18 million pictures despite a court ruling in 2012 that the retention of custody photographs of two innocent people was an “unjustified interference” in their private lives.
Full-face pictures taken of people after their arrests have been used for nearly a year to compare against the footage of criminal suspects from CCTV and police body-worn cameras using powerful new software.
Although any match cannot be used for court cases, the importance for police of the database is set to expand as the quality of public CCTV footage improves and chances of matches increase.
One manufacturer of such facial mapping software has already claimed that a suspect from security footage could be matched to a police mugshot even when they are taken 20 years apart.
Police claim that convictions had been secured after the software had pointed towards potential suspects. But civil rights campaigners accused police and the Home Office of ignoring the court ruling that a new policy be written “in months” to address the privacy concerns of the innocent.
Despite concerns expressed by the Government-appointed biometrics commissioner about the database days after it went online, police pressed ahead and have expanded its size by 50 per cent.
Biometrics commissioner Alastair MacGregor warned of legal woes last year after the system was introduced without public or parliamentary consultation.
In his annual report, he said: “In particular, it appears to me that difficult legal, political and other problems may well quickly arise” linked to the retention of pictures innocent people and the absence of “any very rigorous testing” of the software.
Unlike DNA and biometric information which has to be discarded after six months if suspects are not convicted, police are allowed to retain photographs of suspects. “Its value will be very significantly undermined if the public can't have confidence in it,” the commissioner told the BBC’s Newsnight.
The issue has come to the fore as police forces increasingly use body-worn cameras to gather evidence and for complaints of misconduct to be investigated. According to guidance, body-worn cameras cannot be used to continuously record and the retention of images has to be “justified and proportionate”. Material collected from crime scenes should be deleted after 31 days if it is not part of a live investigation.
In a demonstration of the software for the Independent last year, a senior officer at Leicestershire police said that the system had the “potential for this to look like Big Brother... but that's not the case”.
Emma Carr, of Big Brother Watch, said: “The fact that two years have passed since the retention of these photographs was ruled illegal and nothing has yet been done to rectify that, is absolutely unacceptable.
“It is a simple fact that the Home Office has had two years to address the legality of the police database and any further delay will simply highlight that it holds little respect for innocent peoples’ privacy.”
Durham's Chief Constable Mike Barton, the Association of Chief Police Officers, defended the retention of the pictures and told Newsnight it was done in line with data protection rules.Reuse content