'Orwellian nightmare’: passport database to be used to catch thieves

Policing minister wants to use personal data to crack down on shoplifting crime wave

British passports
British passports are currently held by more than 45 million people
(Image credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Britain's passport database could be used to catch shoplifters, burglars and other criminals under plans currently being considered by the policing minister.

Chris Philp said he wanted to integrate information from national databases including the Passport Office and the Police National Database (PND) to "help police find a match with the 'click of one button'", The Guardian reported. 

During a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Philp said he was asking police to search the passport database now, but plans to roll out a new data platform in "the next two years".

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The proposal has sparked controversy from both politicians and privacy campaigners.

'Zero-tolerance approach'

Police forces currently "only run facial recognition software through the PND", said The Times, but it "only holds information on people who have been arrested".

Although access is permitted to the passport database, it is not currently being used to search for criminals as it "sits on a completely separate IT system", the newspaper added. 

The number of people who hold a UK passport "increased to 45.7 million" in 2021, said the Daily Mirror, citing the most recent census. It is this data that would be drawn upon to help police catch criminals.

Philp wants the police to "start running footage of crime scenes through the separate passport system", The Times stated. He is determined to avoid an American-style situation where some stores have felt forced to leave parts of cities due to high levels of crime. 

Consequently, the new scheme is likely to form part of a wider "zero tolerance approach" by police chiefs, who will investigate any crime with a "reasonable line of inquiry", said The Telegraph.

It will give police powers to search facial images from various places including mobile phone or doorbell cameras as well as CCTV. 

'Gross violation' 

Resistance to the creation of a mass facial recognition system has been widespread.

"Philp's plan to subvert Brits' passport photos into a giant police database is Orwellian and a gross violation of British privacy principles," Silkie Carlo, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, told the Mirror.

Carlo suggested the "highly inaccurate facial recognition technology" would make Britons into "suspects" and overlook "the real reasons for shoplifting". 

Alistair Carmichael, home affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, also said the party would oppose the proposals "every step of the way".

Unprecedented shoplifting

But while the plans have been criticised, some suggest a major crackdown on crime is the only way to solve a growing shoplifting problem.

Last year was dubbed "the year of the shoplifter" as an "epidemic" is "sweeping Britain's high streets", The Mirror said.

According to the British Retail Consortium, shop thefts have more than doubled in the past four years, climbing to almost eight million incidents in 2022. 

A "coalition of businesses and workers" have called for more commitment from police officers in "tackling unprecedented levels of theft", The Guardian added. 

At the same Tory party conference fringe event, Paul Gerrard, director of public affairs at the Co-Op, warned that police are "currently failing to attend 80% of cases where a shoplifter has been detained", LBC reported. He added that the cost of shoplifting "adds a 6p transaction tax to every customer's purchase".

Philp also encouraged people to use "the power of citizen's arrest", where members of the public are permitted in certain instances to detain a suspected criminal until the police arrive. 

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