Scotland attempts to regulate police use of biometric data

Scotland is trying to regulate the police use of biometric technologies, including facial recognition. Brian Plastow, the country’s biometrics commissioner, has sent a final draft to the justice committee for feedback ahead of a statutory instrument in autumn. If it clears, the law could go into effect before the end of the year.

The latest version of the regulation is a 12-point code that outlines what is and is not allowed with regards to the use of biometric tech. However, the language that is missing could end up being more significant. Most notably, the code leaves enforcement to the discretion of law enforcement agencies, and does not carve out any concrete oversight powers to the biometrics commissioner. Instead, Plastow is essentially describing an honor system in which he would ask law enforcement to consult with him before deploying technologies like facial recognition.

In that regard, Plastow seems to be leaning heavily on his 30-year career in law enforcement as the foundation for his good relationship with contemporary agencies. It’s unclear if another biometrics commissioner would garner the same respect, or have the ability to rein in a law enforcement office that was abusing its facial recognition powers.

The law as it currently exists does lay out concrete rules for the acquisition, storage, use, and eventual destruction of biometric data, which apply to DNA and fingerprints in addition to facial recognition. Scotland has been working toward a regulation since 2008, when a report revealed that the country did not have any independent framework to oversee the technology.

For his part, Plastow stressed that any use of facial recognition should be proportional to the task. For example, he argued that facial recognition might not be appropriate during a soccer match between Scotland and France, but might be more appropriate during a G20 event where administrators have been alerted to a possible security threat.

“For the avoidance of doubt, I am not opposed to the police using facial recognition technology in the right circumstances, provided that it works, there is a lawful basis for it, and things are done in a proportionate way when they are necessary,” said Plastow.

Matters of national security would be deferred to Fraser Sampson, the biometrics commissioner for the UK at large. Plastow claimed that the latest draft had the unanimous support of everyone consulted during its construction. Police Scotland has stated that it does not currently have any plans to use live surveillance technology, though it has come under fire for the undisclosed use of facial recognition in the past. The use of face-based surveillance tech has faced strong opposition from the Scottish public.