Millions of photos may be held unlawfully by the police and the Home Office wants it to stay that way

30th March 2017 / Surveillance, UK Civil Liberties and Rights Newscast, United Kingdom

By Stuart The Home Office’s recent review into the police’s retention of photographs of people in custody estimated there were over 19 million such images on the Police National Database as of July 2016. Many will be of people who’ve never been convicted of any offence. Some won’t even have been charged.

The review follows a successful challenge from 2012, in which Liberty intervened, where the High Court ruled the police’s policy of holding onto photographs of innocent people breached the right to privacy guaranteed by the Human Rights Act.

The Court specifically said the police had ‘months, not years’ to revise their unlawful practices. Clearly, the Home Office read this backwards. The resulting recommendations are a belated cop-out.

No statutory oversight

Police forces have been left to revise their own guidance.

Ministers refused to introduce statutory safeguards for the retention of photographs – even though there are laws regulating the deletion of DNA and fingerprints – claiming they are somehow less personal or sensitive.

But with the police increasingly using facial recognition technology, the potential for intrusion is huge. The safeguards surrounding photos must be as strict as for DNA and fingerprints.

The need to apply

The Home Office says people should apply to have their images deleted.

But huge numbers of people will never hear of this option – let alone get around to doing it. And that shouldn’t give the police the right to hold onto your photo forever. If they no longer suspect you’re involved in any criminal activity, they should delete your photo automatically.

Facial recognition

The Government’s review revealed that 16 million custody photographs have become part of a searchable facial recognition gallery.

And we know the police use images on the database for automated facial recognition – such as at Download Festival in 2015 and the Notting Hill Carnival last year.

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The Biometrics Commissioner criticised the lack of legislation dealing with how the police use this software in 2015. The Home Office has done nothing to address these concerns.

Intelligence photos

The review only deals with those photographed in custody – but police also take pictures of innocent bystanders on the street or peaceful protestors who’ve never been arrested.

In 2009, we successfully represented Andrew Wood in his High Court challenge to the police’s retention of his photograph because of his association with a campaigning group. The High Court said police should have deleted it as soon as it became clear there was no suggestion he might commit an offence – but there are likely hundreds of thousands of similar cases. The Home Office has completely ignored them.

Next week we’ll be publishing advice on what to do if you think the police are holding your photograph, and how you can get your fingerprint and DNA records removed – but, in the meantime, feel free to contact us if you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this blog.


Stuart Withers is a Liberty Advice and Information Officer. He joined Liberty in 2016 after having worked in private practice at a leading human rights firm where he assisted solicitors on civil liberties and human rights cases involving hold the state to account. He has a Masters in law, focusing on covert surveillance of legal privilege. Together with Ian Browne, he runs the free public advice service advising members of the public on their human rights.

Founded in 1934, Liberty is a membership organisation at the heart of the movement for fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK.


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