DNA and biometric data use in the Scottish Criminal Justice sector
The use of DNA and other forms of biometric data for criminal justice and policing purposes in Scotland is appropriate and makes a valuable contribution to public safety, states a report published today (Tuesday, October 25, 2022).
Confidence can be high in the management of the innovative technologies deployed in Scotland which, in some instances, are leading the way in the field of forensic examination.
In his first annual report, the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner (SBC) observes that a world leading DNA interpretation and analysis capability is provided to Police Scotland and the wider criminal justice system.
Dr Brian Plastow adds: “As a small country this is something of which we should be proud. Fingerprints and photographs have been used as a means of verification, identification and exclusion for more than 100 years in Scotland. However, in recent times there has been extraordinary growth in both biometric enabled technologies and forensic techniques which have revolutionised the investigation of crime. These developments raise important questions for society such as how best to balance the need for public safety and security with broader privacy, ethical, human-rights and equality considerations.
“For example, sophisticated digital forensics techniques can now recover data from a whole host of electronic devices including biometric data that has the potential to enter the chain of evidence from crime scene to court. It is therefore essential the investigative techniques used by Police Scotland are independently validated and accredited to a recognised international scientific standard”.
Dr Plastow was appointed Scotland’s first Biometrics Commissioner in 2021 and, despite the challenges of the pandemic, established an organisation that now provides independent oversight of biometric data and technologies used for criminal justice and policing purposes in Scotland.
The Commissioner has also prepared a statutory Code of Practice which has recently been approved by the Parliament and Scottish Ministers and will be a world first when it takes legal effect in Scotland on November 16, 2022.
“In my opinion Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services provides a world leading
DNA interpretation and analysis capability to Police Scotland, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner and to the wider criminal justice system in Scotland,” he said.
The first annual report of the embryonic organisation carries three recommendations which, when adopted, will influence the way it develops and ensure Scottish data is appropriately managed when hosted on shared UK law enforcement databases.
Dr Plastow believes there is potential for the Commission to expand beyond its current remit of Police Scotland, the SPA and PIRC to include UK wide policing bodies operating in Scotland such as the National Crime Agency (NCA), British Transport Police (BTP), and the Ministry of Defence Police (MDP).
“There are also other areas within criminal justice where significant volumes of biometric data are held without consent, such as the Scottish Prison Service, and where oversight of biometric and technologies could be beneficial. But this would require the consent of Scottish Ministers and a proper business case, additional funding, and additional resource for my organisation,” he said.
The report highlights differences in legal definitions and practices between Scotland and other UK jurisdictions and recommends that Police Scotland and the SPA take steps to ensure they can administer and maintain Scottish biometric data when it is held on shared UK law enforcement databases.
It also considers Police Scotland’s intention to pursue accreditation, and thus scientific integrity, for its digital forensic laboratory work. While Dr Plastow welcomes this approach, he is of the view responsibility for this field of lab work should be with the SPA establishing a sterile corridor between the police and scientific investigations.
The report also notes that Police Scotland is rigorous about not retaining images of people who have not been charged nor convicted on shared UK databases, and does not use overt live facial recognition technology, something which Dr Plastow thinks could be justified in certain circumstances subject to stringent safeguards. The report also urges the service to ensure that the forensic searches of electronic devices of victims, suspects, and witnesses are proportionate and necessary, and that digital searches are restricted to the recovery of materials relating to the specific matter under investigation.