Justice Committee to consider proposals for biometrics commissioner

Written by Jenni Davidson on 1 July 2019 in News

The biometrics commissioner would monitor how the police use forensic data such as fingerprints and DNA samples

Met Police INK biometric fingerprint scanner - Image credit: Metropolitan Police Service

The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee is to consider proposals for the introduction of a biometrics commissioner to monitor how Police Scotland uses forensic data such as fingerprints, DNA samples and facial images.

The committee will be examining issues such as whether the commissioner is likely to be able to enforce compliance effectively and whether the bill’s proposals on the role, responsibility and power of the commissioner strike the right balance.

The Scottish Government announced in May that it plans to create a new commissioner role to oversee how police use biometric data, including physical, biological, physiological and behavioural information, when it published the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill in parliament.

Police use a variety of biometric information to help them prevent, detect and fight crime, from longstanding techniques such as fingerprinting to new technology such as voice pattern analysis.

The aim of the bill is to help improve how biometric data is handled by police during investigations and ensure it is done in a lawful, ethical and effective way.

Launching the bill, justice secretary Humza Yousaf said that technological advances in biometrics had brought “huge benefits” to police and other justice agencies in detecting, preventing and prosecuting crime, but their use also raised a “number of ethical and human rights considerations”.

He said the Scottish Government wanted to ensure that the approach to biometric data in policing and criminal justice system is “lawful, effective and ethical”.

Yousaf explained: “There is not yet a single commonly recognised set of working standards around biometrics. 

“The new commissioner and the code of practice will complement the work of others, including the information commissioner, and help maintain public confidence in how new technologies and data are being used to help keep crime down and communities safe.”

This commissioner would be tasked with overseeing the use of biometic data by Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

This includes creating a code of practice to provide guidance on good practice for the acquisition, retention, use and destruction of data by Police Scotland and the SPA.

John Scott QC, who chaired the Independent Advisory Group on Biometric Data, which reported last year, said: “Biometric data, including existing technologies relating to fingerprints and DNA, are used to promote public safety in various ways.

“The new framework will ensure that this is done while taking full account of the rights of the individual, not least the right to privacy and security when it comes to the most personal information about them such as can be derived from biometric data.

“This bill, along with related work on the new Ethics Advisory Group for Biometrics recommended by the independent advisory group, will help to place Scotland once more in the vanguard of the ethical development of existing and emerging technologies.”

Following the publication of the bill, the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee has launched a call for evidence on the Scottish Government proposals as part of its consideration of the bill at stage one.

Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said: “Balancing rights and responsibilities is always difficult.

“Particularly when looking at questions around protecting the public from harm versus protecting the public from state intrusion.

“The rapid development of technology that can identify individuals by using highly personal data, and the huge risks associated with this sort of data being used improperly, means that these are interesting and timely proposals from the Scottish Government.

“The committee will grapple with whether the idea to create this new commissioner is the right way to deal with these issues, and whether the commissioner’s proposed powers and remit are fit for the challenges ahead."

The committee’s call for evidence runs until Friday 30 August 2019.

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