Alison McInnes finds yet another Police Scotland civil liberties infringement

Police Scotland have been caught uploading custody shots of people who may not ever even be convicted or have even been charged to the national police database and then searching it using facial recognition technology. Over 600,000 photos of almost 335,000 people are involved.

The facial recognition technology can be used to cross-reference images of suspects from crime scenes with images of individuals kept on the database. However, experts have also raised concerns the system could be abused.

There is currently no framework to stipulate the circumstances in which the technology should be used – meaning it could be used to identify people from football matches or political protests. Fishing expeditions such as these could lead to potential wrongful accusations.

Scottish Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson Alison McInnes found this out through Freedom of Information requests. She said:

These staggering figures reveal that the biometric images of some 300,000 Scots have been trawled on hundreds of occasions by Police Scotland using unregulated facial recognition technology. This confirms they are using this intrusive software.

We don’t know the reasons why each of the 440 searches conducted by Police Scotland took place.

The photos of over 300,000 Scots are among the 18 million across the UK included on this national database. The combination of this database with the new facial recognition software has triggered concerns about the protection of our civil liberties. It has already been condemned by the High Court, a parliamentary committee and the independent Biometrics Commissioner.

Without adequate legal safeguards, there is nothing to stop the police from using this technology for mass surveillance. It could be used to identify protesters at political events or football fans, stifling freedom of speech. I also have real concerns that the privacy of innocent people could be comprised and they could be exposed to the risk of false identification.

Facial recognition technology has the potential to be a useful policing tool in detecting crime and making our communities safer. But, like other biometric identification technologies such as fingerprinting and DNA profiling, it is essential that this intrusive software is properly regulated. It appears it isn’t currently the subject of a robust legal framework or clear reporting processes.

SNP Ministers need to urgently clarify how they are ensuring our civil liberties are protected and this technology is used appropriately.

If Alison McInnes didn’t exist, we would really have to invent her.

Update: Alison asked the Justice Secretary Michael Matheson about it this afternoon and she was not impressed with his response:

Fingerprint and DNA evidence have been mistaken in the past, leading to miscarriages of justice. That is why legislation was introduced to govern how it is managed. Surely the use of this latest biometric software, facial recognition technology, should be subject to similarly rigorous regulations?

The Cabinet Secretary simply doesn’t get it. It may be that Custody mugshots can be uploaded to the national database legitimately. The real questions surround how the police can then try to identify people on the street using this raw technology and, crucially, in what circumstances this would be appropriate.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • David Evans 26th May '15 - 5:45pm

    Alison is an excellent fighter for Liberal Democracy and deserves our thanks and support for her diligence.

  • James Stewart 26th May '15 - 7:30pm

    Police Scotland are getting a new database called I6, it will be able to access over 20 other UK databases, tax, medical etc., what should be examined is who has access to these systems? The new speak is “third party organisations” who are they.
    The company supplying their system is Accenture, an American company that says police authorities need a new breed of policemen, at the moment the only real requirement is a driving license!
    We hear all the time in the news about identities being stolen, are Police Scotland as truthful as we think?

  • There is something touchingly Luddite and technophobic about this kind of thing. Police have been poring over photographs in an attempt to identify suspects for well over a hundred years, with nobody making a fuss. Introduce technology to make the whole process more efficient, and suddenly it’s a hammerblow to our civil liberties.

  • There is something even more touchingly naive in the belief that government organisations will always use technology for the good of the country and not simply their good (which they somehow always manage to define as the good of the country). Liberals know that this goes on and try to control it. Authoritarians like Labour and the Conservatives try to exploit it. Those who think it is Luddite, don’t understand the abuses.

  • Simon Gilbert 26th May '15 - 11:32pm

    The worrying thing is that these 335,000 on the police database are tiny numbers compared to thaose held by Google or Facebook. Would government ever outsource such work to them? Presumably those of us who have done nothing wrong (yet) have ‘nothing to fear’ in that scenario…

  • Interesting? I can’t find the FoI request (at ) that forms the basis of Alison’s claim and press reports. Can any one else find it?

    What is being reported in the press seems to be different in a number of important respects to what is being claimed above, and actually makes more sense; I refer the reader to:

    Key points are:
    1. “Police Scotland also revealed it had used facial recognition technology in an attempt to match CCTV images with those on the database on 440 occasions.”
    2. “Police Scotland said the technology was helping to tackle crime.
    In one case, a thief was traced and convicted after a CCTV image of him stealing from a Durham bookmaker’s shop was matched with a mugshot uploaded to the national database by Police Scotland.
    In another, a man was arrested after a robbery in a Glasgow bookies earlier this year.
    Under the force’s “retention and weeding” procedures, custody mugshots are added to the database when a suspect is charged.
    They are removed when proceedings are dropped or the suspect is found not guilty in court.”

    Given that facial recognition software has been around for some years now, as has the national Police database. I fail to see the “shock horror” that Alison is claiming. This is not being complacent but there is a vast difference between “actual abuse” and “could be abused”.

  • Just picking up on a theme about the use of technology and the reference made by Simon Gilbert to Facebook and Google, I think people might be interested in the following article as it gives an idea of just how much information is in the public domain:

    “A trio of transparency boffins have revealed personal details of 27,000 intelligence officers they say are working on surveillance programs. The resulting dump not only names the officers, but in some cases tells you where they live based on data sourced from LinkedIn profiles and other easy-to-access sources.”

    For more (in-depth) articles on this dataset search using “McGrath Transparency Toolkit”.]

    Whilst largely US-focused there is little reason to suppose that similar information can not be obtained about UK nationals… Also the research doesn’t use facial recognition software, but given the number of photo’s in the collection, adding this capability could both make searching easier and reveal more connections…

    The query that arises, and not being able to locate the freedom of information request to see if this was covered, is whether Police Scotland (and others) are already using the off-the-shelf capabilities of Facebook et al. to gain further background on suspects.

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