Surveillance Commissioner Opposes Absorption By ICO

The UK’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner has said plans to make the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) responsible for monitoring biometric and DNA data are “ill-conceived”.

Fraser Sampson is both biometrics commissioner and surveillance camera commissioner, having been appointed to the dual role in March, in line with Home Office plans to combine the positions.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) proposed further amalgamating the tasks under the ICO, in a consultation launched in September.

The consultation, which Sampson criticised for lack of transparency, is due to end on 19 November.

‘Elemental difference’

In Sampson’s official response to the consultation he said the surveillance camera and biometrics roles were incompatible with the ICO’s remit, and the government seemed to “misunderstand” this.

“There is an elemental difference between general data management principles and intrusive state surveillance; there are also fundamental considerations in this area that are not data protection issues at all,” Sampson said.

Biometrics and surveillance can have an impact on human rights, such as the “chilling effect” that “even the perceived presence of a police surveillance camera” can have on freedoms of expression and assembly, and whether the police’s tools are suitable to be used for criminal investigations and prosecutions.

The surveillance camera role includes areas related to technical standards and delivery of certification schemes, Sampson said.

The functions of the Biometrics Commissioner are not regulatory at all, but are “quasi-judicial” in nature, so that their absorption by the ICO would create a conflict of interest, he said.

Judicial role

“In the setting of those functions there may also be an inherent conflict for the ICO as they will find themselves participating in decisions to authorise police retention of biometrics which are later challenged by the individual who would not then be able to turn to them as the nation’s regulator upholding their information rights at large,” he said.

He said it would be better to absorb the biometrics function into a judicial body such as the Investigatory Powers Commissioner or the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office.

Sampson also criticised the lack of transparency around consultation itself, saying he was “wholly unaware” of it until it was mentioned in private conversations.

“At the time of writing, I have yet to receive formal notification as a statutory officeholder,” he said.

The ICO said it had noted the proposal and that it could provide benefits to stakeholders.

“We are open to this expansion of our regulatory remit, subject to appropriate funding, and await further detail on how any transfer of functions would work in practice,” the office said.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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