Report calls for creation of biometrics information watchdog

A watchdog should be created to oversee a statutory code of practice governing the use of DNA, fingerprints and images by police and other authorities, experts have recommended.

An independent advisory group reviewed the use of such information, known as biometrics, and called for a series of changes.

These include creating a new code on the acquisition, retention, use and disposal of biometric data for Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority and other public bodies, and establishing an independent Scottish biometrics commissioner to ensure compliance.

Further recommendations are for a presumption of data deletion following a minimum retention period, a review of legislation covering the retention to consider "proportionality and necessity", and for a "national debate" to improve public understanding and confidence over its use.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson set up the group last year partially in response to criticism over retention of custody images of people charged but not convicted of a crime.

  • More than one million custody images
  • 362,348 photos of people in the Criminal History System
  • 432,888 fingerprint records
  • 332,213 criminal justice DNA samples

The latest report found a legal gap over these images, of which Police Scotland hold more than one million and retain for up to seven years.The report states: "Police Scotland has no technical means of understanding how many people these records relate to and has no automated means of establishing how many custody images it holds of people who have not been convicted of any offence."

The force held 432,888 people's fingerprints and photos of 362,348 individuals in the criminal history system as of August 2017.

As of December that year, Police Scotland held 332,213 criminal justice DNA samples.

Currently, fingerprints and DNA from those convicted of a single criminal offence can be retained indefinitely, regardless of gravity.

Fingerprints and DNA from those arrested but not convicted must be destroyed immediately with exceptions for certain sexual or violent offences.

Mr Matheson said the government accepts the group's report and "the thrust" of the recommendations, which are also supported by Police Scotland.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson (Andrew Milligan/PA)

"While the 2016 independent report of the HM Inspector found that Police Scotland was making proportionate and necessary use of biometric data and technologies, it identified a need for improved oversight of these arrangements," he said.

"While the creation of a new biometrics commissioner to monitor compliance with a new code will require careful consideration and discussions with the parliamentary authorities, it is one that we accept in principle.

"The public should continue to have confidence in how their information is held and I hope that the publication of this report will kick-start a wider debate on biometric data and how it is best used to help keep our communities safe."

Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald said biometrics are "a critical tool in the investigation and prevention of crime".

She added: "We recognise the importance of ensuring that the public has trust and confidence in the procedures which govern its use.

"Any endeavour to strengthen the legislative framework and provide a balance between keeping the public safe from harm whilst ensuring the appropriate consideration of human rights and ethics is welcomed."

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