Financial monitoring, biometrics and surveillance in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill

Published: 19 April 2024

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is currently being scrutinised by the House of Lords. The Bill proposes giving the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) access to the bank accounts of any person receiving state benefits. The government says the proposal will help to prevent benefit fraud.

It is important that the government can investigate and reduce benefit fraud. The proposed new powers, however, could allow mass artificial intelligence-led surveillance checks on the bank accounts of people receiving state benefits. Without strict controls, this could have significant impact on people’s privacy.  

The law says that any restrictions on privacy must be necessary and proportionate. The DWP already has powers to review people’s bank accounts where there is a suspicion of fraud. It is unclear why this new power is needed. There is also a risk that information about people's bank accounts and their spending habits could be misinterpreted. This could result in benefit sanctions.

The Bill also seeks to make changes to the oversight of the use of biometric identification and surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition technology, by police and local authorities. Currently, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner provides oversight. It is supported by a Code of Practice that provides guidance on the use of surveillance cameras in England and Wales.

The Bill will abolish both the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and the Code of Practice. Instead, general oversight of biometrics and surveillance cameras will fall to the Information Commissioner under its existing data protection powers. It is our view that this will create significant gaps in the oversight of existing uses of surveillance cameras and biometrics.

There are strong safeguards in data protection law around the use of biometric data. But some uses go beyond data protection and raise broader questions about our rights and freedoms.

It is vital that police have tools such as facial recognition technology to protect the public. Yet there must be clear and strong rules that take into account human rights, privacy and non-discrimination.

It is our view that the government should bring forward proposals for a robust and dedicated legal framework for police use of biometric technologies. This will give the public confidence that these technologies are used safely and responsibly.