Commissioner should be appointed to assess PSNI use of surveillance powers, report finds

A Policing Board report has looked at PSNI powers. File photo by Press Eye

A Policing Board report has looked at PSNI powers. File photo by Press Eye

A COMMISSIONER should be appointed to look at the PSNI's use of surveillance powers, a major new report has found.

The report, written by the Policing Board’s human rights adviser John Wadham, looked at the PSNI’s powers to investigate crimes and how they impact on the public’s right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The detailed and wide-ranging report set out all the surveillance powers the PSNI has including the use of surveillance devices and access to phone data, which both need authorisation, and the use of informants.

As part of a series of recommendations, Mr Wadham recommended that an Investigatory Powers Commissioner be appointed for Northern Ireland.

Although a UK commissioner has been in post since in 2016, a planned separate commissioner for Northern Ireland has not yet been appointed.

At the launch of the report yesterday, Mr Wadham said the issue of privacy is hugely important.

"More and more of our private life is online and we can be tracked and monitored in ever greater detail," he said.

“As a result the police can access, collect, and retain a mass of data about our private lives and we need greater transparency, tighter controls and a detailed discussion about what is or isn’t justified."

The report stated that it is difficult for police to be transparent about their surveillance practices, including accessing phone data.

It added that although the techniques officers use are “often exaggerated and distorted… it is precisely these factors which continue to undermine confidence in (the) PSNI, especially in some communities”.

The Policing Board report also highlighted areas including:

  • police access to databases
  • the collection and retention of biometric data, such as fingerprints and DNA samples
  • data extraction from devices including mobile phones
  • data protection at the PSNI

It also looked at live facial recognition (LFC) technology - identifying people by processing CCTV images - which is not used in Northern Ireland, and emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

The review found that there needs to be a public debate about the use of emerging technologies, including AI and algorithms, in connection with policing.

“PSNI should aim to become an organisation driven by effective and efficient use of data in an ethical way,” the report read.

The review raised concerns that new systems have been introduced without consultation.

It stated that the retention of biometric data, the use of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technologies are driven by “the Home Office and the College of Policing, which are often adopted in Northern Ireland without any consultation”.

It found there “appears to be an absence of significant consultation by the police, the Department of Justice, or the Northern Ireland Office on issues of privacy”.

Police patrolling Belfast city centre. File photo by Press Eye

Police patrolling Belfast city centre. File photo by Press Eye

Mr Wadham made six key recommendations including that the PSNI must develop an ethics strategy around the use of data, and that the Board, PSNI and other parties, including any future justice minister, should meet in January next year to look at the use of technology in policing.

As part of the recommendations, Mr Wadham said the PSNI needs to make a special report to the Board on what facial recognition systems it uses and which it plans to use in future.

In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights challenged the retention of biometric data by the PSNI and other UK police forces.

Mr Wadham called on any new devolved assembly and the Department of Justice to appoint a Biometric Commissioner for Northern Ireland to look into the collection and retention of such data.

Although laws around biometric data have not yet come into force in Northern Ireland, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd said the PSNI does have a process which allows people to request that any such data held by the force is deleted from local and national databases.

Requests are not automatically granted but are assessed by a PSNI committee.

ACC Todd said he welcomed the review “and I look forward to working with John to go through the recommendations in detail”.

Live facial recognition was introduced by South Wales Police in 2017 but, following a legal challenge, the High Court found its use breached privacy, data protection and equality laws.

ACC Todd added that “live facial recognition is not being used in Northern Ireland and there are no plans to do so but we can never say never”.

Policing Board vice chairman Edgar Jardine said the PSNI “must continue to become more transparent as its techniques have greater and greater impacts on privacy if it is to continue policing by consent”.

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