Police hold 19 million people's faces on official database

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Hundreds of thousands of innocent people’s faces are being held on an official police database, according to “worrying” revelations from an information watchdog.

Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles said 19 million custody photographs were on file on the Police National Database, but many are of people who have since been released without charge.

Professor Wiles said technological developments had outpaced legislation, and warned the situation threatened to damage the reputation of the police.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s very worrying because if we’re not careful the public will lose confidence in the police.”

Prof Wiles, whose job is to scrutinise how police and other authorities retain information including DNA samples, profiles and fingerprints, said the rapid growth in the database could result in innocent people being unfairly targeted, and called for the current system to be simplified.

At present, people have the right to request the removal of their custody images if they have been cleared.

Prof Wiles said: “I have said that to the government [that] I think what they’ve put in place is a much more complicated process – that would be much simpler if deletion was simply automatic.”

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “There is a clear need to strike a balance between protecting an individual’s privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe.

“For this reason we published the Custody Image Review in February 2017 under which people not convicted of an offence have the right to request that a custody image is deleted from all police databases, with a general presumption that it must be removed, unless there is an exceptional reason for it to be retained, such as the person posing an on-going risk to the public.”

Mug shots are used by police as part of facial recognition data, which is often in the policing of events such as Notting Hill Carnival.

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