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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
04 July 2022
Chief Inspector of Prisons ‘would welcome oversight’ over use of biometric technology

Chief Inspector of Prisons ‘would welcome oversight’ over use of biometric technology

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons “would welcome oversight” from the Biometrics Data Commissioner on biometric data and technologies that are used in Scottish prisons.

According to a letter written by Dr Brian Plastow, the Biometrics Data Commissioner, to the convenor of the Criminal Justice Committee, Audrey Nicoll MSP, he was told by Wendy Sinclair-Gieben that she would welcome his independent oversight if it was approved by ministers.  

Sinclair-Gieben cited the specialised subject nature and human rights considerations when suggesting the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner oversees the potential new technology in prisons.  

Currently, there is no general independent oversight of how biometric data and technologies are being used in Scottish prisons, except for the Information Commissioner's Office, that looks at data protection, and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, that oversee covert surveillance.  

Plastow would like to know if, like some English and Welsh prisons, Scottish prisons are currently employing live facial recognition technology and other biometrics.  

In some prisons south of the border, such technology is being employed to verify the identity of visitors, to assist in managing excluded persons, and to assist in the prevention of drugs and other contraband being smuggled onto the prison estate.  

The UK government revealed in 2019 that they had successfully trialled new facial recognition technology at HMP Hull, Humber and Lindholme that allowed prison staff to identify visitors using applications based around document validation, iris scanning and facial recognition software.

In his letter to the convenor of the Criminal Justice Committee, Plastow said: “There is also an emerging trend within prisons in other UK jurisdictions where live facial recognition technology and other biometrics are deployed to verify the identity of visitors, to assist in managing excluded persons, and to assist in the prevention of drugs and other contraband being smuggled onto the prison estate. It would be interesting for the Committee to ascertain whether any such technologies are currently deployed in Scottish prisons.  

“From recent discussion with HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, I can confirm that with the exception of oversight by the ICO on matters connected with data protection, and by the IPCO on covert surveillance, there is no general independent oversight in relation to how biometric data and technologies are overtly used in Scottish prisons. I am advised by HM Chief Inspector that she would welcome the oversight by my office if approved by Scottish Ministers given both the specialist subject nature, and human rights considerations which arise.  

“I therefore agree with the view expressed by the committee that it would be appropriate for Ministers to consider whether biometric data and technologies used in Scottish prisons should fall within the remit and functions of the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner and Code of Practice. Should Scottish ministers wish to explore this possibility in more detail, then I would be more than happy to engage with Scottish Government officials and the Scottish Prison Service in terms of conducting an initial joint feasibility study.”

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