Police secretly conducting facial recognition searches of passport database

Passengers using ePassport gates at UK border control, Stansted Airport. Image: Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

Passengers using the ePassport Passengers using ePassport gates at UK border control, Stansted Airport. Image: Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photoat UK border control, Stansted Airport, UK
Revelation sparks concern among MPs and watchdogs over implications for data protection and relationship between the citizen and the state

Reports Mark Wilding for Liberty Investigates and Charles Hymas for the Telegraph. Edited by Harriet Clugston, Liberty Investigates’ editor.


Police forces have been secretly conducting hundreds of facial recognition searches using the UK’s database of 46 million British passport holders, it can be revealed.

Policing minister Chris Philp sparked fresh alarm among privacy campaigners at the Conservative Party conference in October when he announced plans to instruct officers to use passport photos to identify suspects in all burglaries, thefts and shoplifting, as part of a Home Office drive to increase police use of facial recognition.

However, Liberty Investigates can reveal the practice has been secretly taking place since at least 2019, according to a freedom of information (FOI) request – with searches dramatically ramping up in the months prior to Philp’s speech.

Data obtained from the Home Office shows forces searched the UK passport database – which contains the images of all 46 million British passport holders – using facial recognition technology more than 300 times in the first nine months of 2023. Forces have also carried out searches of the UK immigration database, which holds information on foreign nationals.

The revelation has sparked concern among MPs, campaigners and watchdogs. After being told about the use of passport data, a spokesman for the information commissioner John Edwards said they would be raising the disclosure and its implications for data protection with the Home Office.

A spokesman said: “The Information Commissioner’s Office is engaged with the Home Office on a number of issues related to facial recognition technology to better ensure its use in line with data protection principles. We are now engaging on the issue of the passport database in light of this additional information.”

"For the police to act like this undermines the data relationship between the citizen and the state."

David Davis, Conservative MP and former Cabinet Office member and Shadow Home Secretary

Conservative MP David Davis, who served as Shadow Home Secretary under David Cameron, said there was “no explicit legislative basis” for using facial recognition technology in the UK. “The data on both the UK passport database and the immigration database was not provided for these purposes,” he said. “For the police to act like this undermines the data relationship between the citizen and the state. At the very least, the House of Commons should be informed precisely who authorised this and who carried it out.”

Tony Porter, the Government’s former surveillance camera commissioner, said it was “problematic” that passport holders’ data was being searched by police without their prior knowledge or consent that it was to be used for such a purpose.

“The other thing that is problematic is that the Government has extolled the importance of transparency. They should be putting this out there about how and why it’s legitimate otherwise they risk losing the trust and confidence of the public,” said Mr Porter, a former assistant chief constable.

Facial recognition technology allows the police to use images taken from sources such as CCTV or mobile phone footage – even those that are blurred or partially obscured – and search for matches in a database of potential suspects.

Use of the technology has dramatically increased in recent years, and forces already conduct thousands of searches annually using the Police National Database, which holds around 16 million images of people who have been arrested – including hundreds of thousands who were never charged with or were cleared of an offence.

In December the Guardian reported police would also soon be able to search a database of Britain’s 50 million driving licence holders, under a new law making its way through Parliament.

Madeleine Stone, senior advocacy officer at campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “It is deeply concerning that police forces have been secretly scanning the faces of all 45 million passport holders with dangerously inaccurate facial recognition technology.

“There is no clear legal basis for this intrusive technology, yet the policing minister is now seeking to expand its use for low level crime, rather than reining it in. We urgently need a democratic, lawful approach to the role of facial biometrics in Britain.”

The FOI request shows police forces conducted 391 facial recognition searches of the passport database over the past five years – most of them in 2023, when more than two-thirds of territorial forces across England, Wales and Scotland conducted at least one search. Eleven searches of the immigration database were also conducted last year.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council confirmed officers currently send passport database search requests to the Passport Office, and they are authorised on a case-by-case basis. The Home Office said they were only currently done for the most serious offences.

The Metropolitan Police Service was responsible for almost one in three passport searches in the first nine months of 2023. A spokesperson for the force said: ”Retrospective facial recognition is used after a crime has taken place as part of an investigation to try and identify who a person is. This technology significantly helped progress numerous investigations including those for murder, rape and assault. We use a number of methods to try to identify suspects, in a small number of cases we will work with other organisations who may be able to assist us.”

Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s military, security and police programme director, said it was “deeply alarming” forces had been using the databases in this way.

“Facial recognition systems violate the right to privacy and threaten the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, and to equality and non-discrimination,” he said. “We need to push back against these systems and their dangerous effects becoming part of everyday life by stealth.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to making sure the police have the tools and technology they need to solve and prevent crimes, bring offenders to justice, and keep people safe.

“Technology such as facial recognition helps the police quickly and accurately identify those wanted for serious crimes, as well as missing or vulnerable people. It also frees up police time and resources, meaning more officers can be out on the beat, engaging with communities and carrying out complex investigations.”

A version of this story was published with The Telegraph.