Government ministers have been urged to extend the scope of biometrics regulations in Scotland to go beyond policing agencies.

Oversight in Scotland of biometric data, which includes DNA, finger prints and photographs, is currently restricted to policing bodies and the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner believes there is merit in extending it across all criminal justice agencies. 

In his annual report, the Commissioner highlights that biometric data is used extensively in criminal prosecutions, in prisons and in the multi-agency management arrangements for violent and sexual offenders.

Dr Brian Plastow, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner, said : “My concern is that all these areas do not benefit from independent oversight nor the protection provided by our Code of Practice.

“Biometrics are shared between criminal justice partners, between prisons and criminal justice social work to name a few. These agencies, and policing, all work closely together and sit within the same ministerial portfolio, so it is my view that the goal should be for them all to be the subject of independent oversight.

“I would encourage Scottish Ministers to give more serious consideration to opportunities to extend the independent oversight of my office and the safeguards of the statutory Code of Practice in Scotland to that whole ecosystem.”

As a result, biometric data within multi-agency sharing initiatives such as the Scottish Government Digital Evidence Sharing Capability (DESC) would be subject of independent oversight. 

Dr Plastow considers the present arrangements, which he describes as “piecemeal”, run the risk of undermining public confidence and trust. 

There is also compelling evidence, he states, for the expansion of the Commission’s role to cover the acquisition, possession, use and destruction of biometric data from Scotland by the National Crime Agency, British Transport Police and Ministry of Defence Police. 

In the months ahead, the Commission – set up in 2021 following the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Act 2020  – will carry out a review of images and photographs which can be held on multiple databases.

There is no specific legal provision relating to the use of police images under the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 which is the primary legislation allowing the collection and retention of fingerprints and other biometric samples from those arrested by the police. 

Also under the spotlight will be the legal basis under which biometric data for criminal justice purposes is held to ensure it is retained lawfully by Police Scotland. 

“There are grounds to be confident about the security of biometric data used for policing purposes in Scotland,” said Dr Plastow.

“A public attitudes survey we carried out to assess people’s opinions on biometrics and inform future work of the organisation suggested high levels of public confidence and trust in the way it is used. In addition, to date, no complaints have been made under the Code of Practice.” 

Introduced in November, the ‘world-leading Code’ guides the ways in which biometric data and technologies may be used for policing and criminal justice purposes.

An individual can complain to the Scottish Biometrics Commission if they believe the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) or the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) have not used their data appropriately.