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UK Police Have Been Secretly Using Passport Database for Facial Recognition Since 2019

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It has come to light that UK police forces have been using facial recognition technology to conduct extensive searches within the nation’s passport database, which comprises 46 million British passport holders. This clandestine operation, ongoing since at least 2019, The Telegraph and Liberty Investigates have found.

Passport photos are collected for a specific purpose – to verify the identity of individuals for international travel. When these photos are repurposed for a facial recognition database by law enforcement, it constitutes a significant invasion of privacy. People do not expect their passport photos to be used for surveillance or policing purposes, which can lead to a feeling of constant monitoring and a loss of anonymity in public spaces. Misuse can lead to a chilling effect on free speech and assembly, as individuals might fear being unjustly targeted due to their presence in these databases.

When individuals provide their photos for passports, they do not explicitly consent to their use in law enforcement databases, neither have they typically been arrested for a crime – which is often used as grounds for collecting biometric data from a suspect. Law enforcement’s use of passport databases for facial recognition scanning turns all passport holders into a potential suspect pool, raising major civil liberties concerns.

This lack of consent is a fundamental issue, as it bypasses the individuals’ rights to control how their personal data is used. The use of these photos without explicit permission for law enforcement purposes can be seen as a violation of personal autonomy and rights.

Concerns have been raised over privacy and data protection following this disclosure. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), through its spokesman, has voiced intentions to address these concerns with the Home Office, emphasizing the need to align facial recognition technology’s usage with data protection principles.

The Home Office’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Request data reveals that, in the first nine months of 2023 alone, over 300 facial recognition searches were conducted on the UK passport database.

This practice has raised alarms among several MPs and privacy watchdogs. John Edwards, the information commissioner, through his spokesman, has indicated the ICO’s engagement with the Home Office on this matter, highlighting the “importance of transparency” and the potential implications for data protection.

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