Former West Yorkshire Police officer Fraser Sampson takes on new role as surveillance camera and biometrics commissioner

The development of new technologies to capture people's 'biometric' data should spark a discussion about how long public and private bodies are allowed to keep the information, according to a leading government watchdog.

Fraser Sampson, a former West Yorkshire Police officer who is now the Government’s independent Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, said changing laws could not keep up with emerging new methods for using physical or behavioral human characteristics to digitally identify a person.

He said "many layers of safeguards and accountability" currently exist to stop surveillance camera images, as well as fingerprints and DNA, from being used inappropriately by police or local authorities.

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Fraser Sampson, a former West Yorkshire Police officer who is now the Government’s independent Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, said changing laws could not keep up with emerging new methods for using physical or behavioral human characteristics to digitally identify a person. Pic: James Hardisty

Part of this is the statutory Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, brought in as part of the 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act under then-Home Secretary Theresa May and currently under review by the Government. Bodies like local councils and the police must follow the code.

Some bodies who are not obliged to follow the code, like Barnsley's hospital trust, have signed up anyway to offer reassurance to the public on how material gathered by its CCTV cameras is used.

But Mr Sampson said the way this area develops in the coming years means a "principles-based framework suitable for whatever technology might produce in future" would avoid a "foot race" similar to the war on drugs, where legislation is unable to keep pace with changes in practice.

Mr Sampson, a Sheffield Hallam University academic who has worked in the offices of West and North Yorkshire's police and crime commissioners, was also an officer between 1982 and 1996 for West Yorkshire Police and the British Transport Police.

In March he took on his new role, which brings together the work done by his two predecessors, Tony Porter and Paul Wiles.

As surveillance camera commissioner, his role is to encourage compliance with the code of practice and review how well it is working.

As biometrics commissioner, his job is to keep under review the retention and use by the police of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints, as well as deciding whether police can retain them to help them solve crime.

The number of CCTV cameras in the UK has led to it being described as one of the most surveilled countries in the world, with London ranking only behind two Chinese cities in terms of numbers of cameras per head of population.

Mr Sampson said that with civil liberties concerns about surveillance cameras, "much of the unease and subsequent litigation has come, not so much from the acquisition of biometrics and camera images but their retention and use".

And he told The Yorkshire Post: "It is critical to understand that retention of any biometric material and by that I would also include the possibility of images, needs to be the product of a deliberate and purposive decisions supported by powers and policy, rather than a default position that says 'well we've got it and we'll get around to thinking what to do with it in the future'.

"That's the key here and increasingly, I think, both law and practice require you to operate these systems in a way that is minimally intrusive, ie if there was a less intrusive way of doing that you should adopt that.

"So I think increasingly, there will be a discussion around time limited acquisition and retention of data and biometrics that say the purpose for which you captured that information has now passed because it was related to an event, a particular moment in time.

"So how long will you retain it for thereafter and under what power, will you retain it, and for what purpose will you use it during that retention period. So almost reflecting some of the rigour of the DNA and fingerprints legislation where you have to be very clear about this is why we were retaining it for this period."

In 2018, Mr Sampson's former employer West Yorkshire Police became the first force in the country to unveil new handheld scanners which officers could use to check fingerprints against national fingerprint database records in less than a minute.

He said the confirmation of identity, allowing officers to discount someone from an investigation or establish that they are safe and well, was an area that benefitted from speed of turnaround.

And he said: "So you've got technical capability which is advancing all the time. And I think if the police have access to faster, cheaper and more reliable tools and techniques for investigating crime then not only would people expect them to use that technology but increasingly, there will be an emerging legal obligation for them to do so.

"The issue is that they do it in a way that is as transparent as as permissible and as accountable as possible and in a way where they have engaged with the communities in which it will be deployed, and the people understand the facts behind the technology itself for example, rather than some of the mythology or demonisation of that technology.

"Also the policies under which it will be used and those policies should be available to people so they can read and check for themselves how this is to be deployed, why it's believed to be necessary and proportionate in their communities, and where they can raise any further questions or concerns that they may have about it."

He said he believed this was the case in West Yorkshire, with biometrics processes scrutinised by his office and the forensic science regulator.