UK government offers £4.6 million bounty for facial-recognition system

The Home Office is planning to push ahead with facial-recognition software for law enforcement after it put up an ad looking for suppliers to enter into a five-year contract. The advert – which appears on the EU’s Tenders Electronic Daily – is seeking a company to step into the breach for an initial five-year period, with room for a two-year extension, in a contract worth £4.6 million.

The winning supplier will be required to provide “a combination of biometric algorithm software and associated components that provide the specialised capability to match a biometric facial image to a known identity held as an encoded facial image”. The main focus of the task will be integrating the Home Office’s Biometric Match Platform Service into a centralised Matching Engine Software.

For the money, the UK government will also be expecting a bunch of extras, including design, accuracy testing, systems integration, data migration and ongoing support, which probably makes the package seem a whole lot less appealing.

Privacy concerns

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The road to this point has been a long, winding and controversial one – chiefly because a useful biometric system requires records of people’s faces, and the courts have found that to be a contentious point. Back in 2012, the high court objected to the Home Office hoarding millions of people’s likenesses on records. The court suggested that the Home Office should come up with improvements to the system in a period “measured in months, not years”.

Someone at the Home Office must have skim-read that particular instruction because revised guidance only emerged this year. The concession reached was that individuals who believe their likeness to be held in the database of 19 million have the right to ask for it to be removed. They have the right to ask, but it can be turned down by officers if they believe it needs to be kept “for a policing purpose”.

Now that that unfortunate business is (sort of) out of the way, the government is pushing ahead with the contract, initially for policing, but with the potential to push into other public services – although the text is pretty vague about what these might be. “The initial MES (Face) deployment is focused on law enforcement,” the description reads. “However, the intended Contract provides for deployment to a wider set of Central Government (including police) organisations over the contract Duration. Such additional deployments will be added through Change Control, operating within the parameters of this notice and the supporting procurement documents.”

Such wording won’t allay the fears of many, including Alastair MacGregor QC, then commissioner for the retention and use of biometric material, who wrote in his 2015 report: “I am concerned that the considerable benefits that could be derived from the searching of custody images on the PND may be counterbalanced by a lack of public confidence in the way in which the process is operated, by challenges to its lawfulness and by fears of ‘function creep’.”

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