back to article UK Ministry of Justice: Surprise! We tested out biometric tech in prisons and 'visitors' with drugs up their bums ran away

The UK Ministry of Justice is considering rolling out biometric technology in prisons to cut down on visitors bringing in contraband, reporting that a "successful" recent trial had a deterrent effect. However, privacy campaigners said news of the trial had come as a "total shock", and watchdogs warned the tech must only be …

  1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    I wonder how many of those "running away" were either wardens or hired by wardens to make deliveries?

    1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

      I wonder how many of those "running away" were either wardens or hired by wardens

      Prison officers, please. Once G4S is involved the concept of actual warding seems to be outside the scope of the contract.

  2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

    Biometric tests

    I am a little uncertain how iris scanning is supposed to detect heroin stuffed up a lady's front bottom.

    Perhaps they were too, and stayed away because they though anal probing was involved.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Biometric tests

      "I am a little uncertain how iris scanning is supposed to detect heroin stuffed up a lady's front bottom."

      The justification provided by the MoJ is that those engaged in organised and persistent smuggling are often using stolen or fraudulent documentation to get through the front door as a visitor and then repeating that process frequently across many prisons. By actually verifying the presented ID is representing the prisoner and then logging that identity (or their biometrics) centrally, it becomes a lot more difficult to hide in the noise across many prisons or to switch identities and try again.

      Amusingly, this is already routine practice in many city centre nightclubs to stop problem drug dealers from getting in.

      This very much strikes me as something that, if properly explained and justified, the public would be wholly behind. People in prison, and to a lesser extent those visiting them, should expect to have certain freedoms and rights curtailed. One of those is the right to privacy. Visitors are already subject to search on entry to the prison. Visitors are already required to present their identity documents and have their visit logged. If biometric and identity verification technology could be shown to curtail the rampant contraband problem in our prisons, would people really strenuously object? I don't think so.

      Rolling it out in secret, intentionally avoiding all oversight, is another matter entirely.

      1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: Biometric tests

        Thank you for replying seriously to my little joke post. I don't disagree with you. I was merely referring to the apparently juxtaposition in the subhead.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Biometric tests

        So the takeaway is that it "may" have been a deterrent but they can't use it because it violated someone's "rights'? Prison isn't a country club or night out on the town, so restrictions on visitors, etc. should be in place. I'm not sure what the problem is then.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          FAIL

          "I'm not sure what the problem is then."

          You are an American perhaps?

          1. Mark 110 Silver badge

            Re: "I'm not sure what the problem is then."

            Sorry mate I'm British. I've never visited a prison but I would expect to be subject to the same kind of identity checks entering a prison as sometthing like jury service (rigorous). No problem with not letting people in prisons without confirmation of identity.

            But as someoone said above the methods need to be publc.

            1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
              Happy

              Re: "I'm not sure what the problem is then."

              Blimey Mark, you've aged 25 years in just over a day.....

              1. Mark 110 Silver badge

                Re: "I'm not sure what the problem is then."

                50 later this year.

      3. defiler Silver badge

        Re: Biometric tests

        This actually seems like a plausible use case for facial scanning, but the voice in the back of my mind is screaming:

        1) Why was this not approved in public first of all and run by all the relevant people to keep it public.

        2) This is the thin end of the wedge. It's easy to get legislation passed to put these systems into prisons, but our government will make the wording fuzzy enough that it'll fit for a nursery, a cash machine, a pub or a stadium...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Biometric tests

          Test the system in a number of controlled environments and trials, before you implement it across, against the general public. Oh, by the way, that system of granting and denying certain "favours", like being able to buy tickets for travel, for the misbehaving public, apparently it works pretty well in China. Should be easy to scale down, methinks and Capita would LOVE to demonstrate how it would BRING HUGE SAVINGS to the Budget and GREATLY ENHANCE THE SAFETY of The System.

          p.s. the frog might leap out if that water's too hot, sure but hey, make the walls high enough...

    2. chivo243 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Biometric tests

      Please strip naked and get on the probulator...

      Thumbs up, I think you get it...

      1. MGJ

        Re: Biometric tests

        That is actually what happens on admission to prison (in Scotland at least). Prisoners have a whole body scan, and anything found is either confiscated or returned to the inmate as appropriate. To facilitate that, each prison has a safe to hold confiscated items (known as the shitty safe for obvious reasons). They are kept in a holding area with special toilets until they hand it over, one way or another.

        If you doubt the ability to hide contrabrand about the person, a female prisoner was put in a temporary area to be searched, and afterwards had her clothing removed to be checked, leaving her naked. The room was empty. Five minutes later, officers found her drinking a can of coke and smoking a cigarette.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Is it just me ?

    Biometric trials that fail, facial recog that fails miserably, government IT projects that don't stop failing and, for some unfathomable reason, are never stopped - does anyone else have the impression that, in general and broadly speaking, Benny Hill is in charge and has been for the past decade ?

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Is it just me ?

      If Benny Hill had been in charge it all would have been funny. It's not been funny.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Is it just me ?

        "If Benny Hill had been in charge it all would have been funny. It's not been funny."

        Correction:

        If Benny Hill had been in charge ....... it would have been comparatively 100% successful !!!

        Come to think of it virtually anything would have been more successfull including a 'House Brick' !!!

        Is it possible to get a more useless and inefficient group of 'yahoos' than the current politicians we have.

        Case in point .... (Chris Grayling, Karen Bradley, Amber Rudd, all the way to Mrs May herself. That is just a small example of the 'Political excellence' we are lumbered with !!!. BTW don't forget the 'absent without permission' opposition party that is all but not there in spirit and mind !!!)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is it just me ?

      If Biometric trials are all failing then why is it they can use facial recognition at the airport in the passport control? I used it myself, scan passport then look at camera.

      I don't think it is failing, I think that's just a way to justify no oversight till it's too late and it's everywhere.

      1. defiler Silver badge

        Re: Is it just me ?

        Yeah. I used it and it blanked me. I had to join the end of an ever-lengthening queue of people getting their passports checked manually.

        (Full disclosure, it has worked for me once, in Schiphol.)

      2. katrinab Silver badge

        Re: Is it just me ?

        The passport gate checks your face against the face on your passport in carefully controlled conditions. It tells you exactly how to look at the camera to get the best image. That system can be considered a success if it is as accurate as a human doing the same thing.

      3. deive

        Re: Is it just me ?

        You would only know about a false negative result, that doesn't mean that if some who looked a little bit like stole your passport and used it they would not get though...

      4. Mark #255
        Coat

        Re: Is it just me ?

        To add my own anecdote, the ones at Stansted would not recognise me until I removed my glasses.

        Hang on, is that how Clark Kent manages to keep his secret? Is Lois Lane an android?

        1. Is It Me

          Re: Is it just me ?

          The ones at Gatwick tell you to take off your glasses.

          I had to keep peeking through the glasses to see if there were any instructions on the screen

        2. Rumblebot

          Re: Is it just me ?

          The ones at Stansted are placed so that the early evening sun shines on them through the glass building sides and stops them working. Several times I've been caught up in the queues as blocks of gates are turned off as the sunlight works its way along the line.

      5. James R Grinter

        Re: Is it just me ?

        How automated are those gates? Anecdotes I’ve heard suggest they are very reliant upon humans looking at multiple screens.

    3. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Is it just me ?

      If Benny Hill was in charge he would have swapped the reel-to-reel tapes on the facial recognition computer.

    4. Marketing Hack Silver badge
      Go

      Re: Is it just me ?

      If Benny Hill was involved, the camera's would have a little speaker that plays Yakkety-Sax.

      1. chivo243 Silver badge

        Re: Is it just me ?

        And a display showing Benny chasing the Luvly's in fast slow motion!

        1. Spasticus Autisticus
          Happy

          Re: Is it just me ?

          Common misconception - the lovelies were chasing Benny.

          Had to go watch few Benny Hill chases on yt - now my face aches :)

    5. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Re: Is it just me ?

      facial recog that fails miserably

      You need to differentiate facial recognition as used by the police to scan crowds, which does seem to have an unacceptable failure rate, from the individual recognition that I assume they're using in prisons. I'd expect that to be about as reliable as the facial recognition on smartphones.

  4. Chris G Silver badge

    That's Odd

    In the most recent report on prison visiting, Groucho Marx is considered the most prolific of those visiting to raise prisoner's morale.

  5. Spamfast Bronze badge
    Big Brother

    Doesn't "Ministry of Justice" ring rather hollow?

    "Home Office" was a lot less ominous.

    I suppose we should be thankful that they didn't call it "Ministry of Love".

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      But in the bright new world we get the Home Office *and* the Ministry of Justice.

      The former is engaged in finding new ways of criminalising as much of the population as possible, the latter is tasked with explaining why you can't put a quart of prisoners in a pint pot of prisons.

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

        Because they are having difficulty getting civil servants working in a 'ministry of justice' to keep a straight face?

    2. Bonzo_red

      How about "Ministry of Truth and Justice"?

    3. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Coat

      Buford T. Justice

      "Ministry of Justice" - with Sheriff Buford T. Justice at the helm.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buford_T._Justice

    4. imanidiot Silver badge

      Shouldn't that be MiniLuv, MiniTrue, MiniPax and MiniPlenty? Or does the Newspeak come afterwards?

    5. macjules Silver badge

      Would you prefer, "Ministry of Anal Probing'?

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

        where they will hand over much activity to the government's preferred outsourcing partner... Crapita

  6. James 51 Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Can't help but be reminded the Soviet Science sucess of increase wheat yields.

    1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

      Can't help but be reminded the Soviet Science sucess of increase wheat yields.

      Actually on a serious note, the Lysenko story is a bit misunderstood.

      Western biology at the time was in full-on genetic inflexibility mode. Obviously growing wheat progressively further north wouldn't work, stupid Soviets ha ha!

      Since then it has turned out that many organisms have different expressions due to genetic controls that are affected by the early environment. Growing wheat under cold conditions may select for the samples which have a better cold adaptation mechanism. No memory of previous cold environments is needed, just plain old natural selection. Wheat whose adaptation mechanisms fail to turn on and off the right genes don't get to reproduce.

      Where it went wrong were Marxist theorists confusing this with dialectic materialism, as silly as the churches trying to apply Christian doctrine to science. But Lysenko himself wasn't being stupid.

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Can't help but be reminded the Soviet Science sucess of increase wheat yields.

        But Lysenko himself wasn't being stupid

        Especially as epigenetics has revealed that not all of Lysenkos ideas about genetics are false..

        1. James 51 Silver badge

          Re: Can't help but be reminded the Soviet Science sucess of increase wheat yields.

          Epigenetics isn't quite the same thing. The DNA isn't being altered by the efforts of the parent (or grandparent (see the evidence of grandchildren of famine survivors apparently having genes to better survive famine being active)), it's different parts of the existing genome being activated or deativated by stimuli.

  7. dmck

    I believe 'Justice' is a devolved Power, so this will be England and possibly Wales.

    Scotland and Northern Ireland are devolved AFAIK.

    1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Wales

      Justice is most definitely not devolved to the Senedd. It should be.

      Although we do get lots of English convicts devolved to prisons in Wales. And English citizens in need of social housing get devolved to estates in Wales, hundreds of miles from their homes and friends.

      Ho hum, roll on #indywales. Latest polls show major swing to Plaid Cymru from Labour, and fast growing support for Indy. Pretty soon they'll be left with the United Kingdom of Norf and Sarf England.

      Justice would be an interesting one to devolve, as in Scotland. Wales has a long (>1000 years) history of rather interesting legal principles, which focus on justice, restitution and recompense rather than punishment and revenge as seen in the Anglo-Norman English legal system.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Wales

        "Ho hum, roll on #indywales. Latest polls show major swing to Plaid Cymru from Labour, and fast growing support for Indy. Pretty soon they'll be left with the United Kingdom of Norf and Sarf England."

        Oi! I'll have you know that The Peoples Liberation Front For The Independence Of The Kingdom Of Northumbria has increased in membership by 1000% this year alone. There's 10 of us now! It's the fastest growing independence movement in the UK!!

        1. johnB

          Re: Wales

          Make that 11 !

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wales

          The Peoples Liberation Front For The Independence Of The Kingdom Of Northumbria?

          Splitters!

        3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Re: Wales

          Independence Of The Kingdom Of Northumbria

          Or, when Scotland devolves, you could always petition to rejoin them on the basis that Scotland ruled large parts of Northumbria at one point.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Wales

            "Or, when Scotland devolves, you could always petition to rejoin them on the basis that Scotland ruled large parts of Northumbria at one point."

            If we choose the right time period for our historic borders, we get Edinburgh and most of East Lothian as part of Northumbria. Bloody Scots can move their parliament back into their own historic borders :-)

      2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Wales

        United Kingdom of Norf and Sarf England

        Followed by the breakaway of the Danelaw[1] on the basis that they are distinct from "those soft Southern jessies".

        (The problem with indywales is that Wales has very little status in law - unlike Scotland[2] and NI. It would take some interesting legal gymnastics to redefine it as a country and not as a series of council areas to the west of England.. But if they can do it, I'm sure that the Cornish[3] wouldn't be far behind)

        [1] Yes, I'm aware that, at one point, it nearly extended down to London on an oblique from north-west to south-east.

        [2] A formerly-independent country with several walls between them and us.

        [3] Kernow bys vikken!

  8. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    Deterrent effect?

    one prison had reported a higher number than usual of "no-shows" after visitors found the software was in use.

    So would a sign and a dummy camera work as well? Cheaper & simplifies the authorization proces.

    1. David 132 Silver badge

      Re: Deterrent effect?

      "WARNING - BIOMETRIC SCREENING IN USE.

      ALL VISITORS WILL BE SUBJECT TO PHRENOLOGY EVALUATIONS"

      ...should do the trick, and be just about as scientifically valid.

    2. Ben1892
      Joke

      Re: Deterrent effect?

      When knowing the difference between Retinal Scan and Rectal Scan is the deterrent

  9. This post has been deleted by its author

  10. Severus

    Why Bother?

    Just put a big thick walls with perspex screens between the visitors and the inmates to block ALL physical contact, put mobile phone jammers on the prison roofs so deliveries can't be organised and I would think you'd cut contraband in prisons by 99% overnight.

    1. Mark Exclamation

      Re: Why Bother?

      Absolutely! Why do we make these criminals' lives so easy? It's not much different to speeding; if you don't speed, you won't pay a fine. If you don't become a criminal, you won't be in prison. Simples!

      1. Spamfast Bronze badge

        Re: Why Bother?

        If you don't become a criminal, you won't be in prison.

        Literally true but not everybody in prison now had good mental health, was living a reasonably prosperous & bearable lifestyle with some sort of future and just decided to go on a crime spree for the hell of it or to get rich.

        I'm not justifying crime - most poor or mentally unwell people commit very little - but there are demonstrable relationships between levels of poverty, lack of mental health care, crime rates & prison populations.

        I agree that prisons (or other punishment such as properly enforced community service cleaning public toilets and the like) shouldn't be a walk in the park - for white collar "non-violent" crooks who defraud people of their pensions just as much as for your sawn-off wielding sub-post-office robber.

        But austere shouldn't mean barbaric - Dostoyevsky was right about society's treatment of prisoners as were Ghandi & Churchill about its weakest members in general.

        Top priority should be the stamping out of all types of crime inside prisons especially violence. Mental health support & rehabilitation should be central not just a sop to liberals. Otherwise you've got a self-perpetuating and ever more expensive penal system.

        It's not much different to speeding; if you don't speed, you won't pay a fine.

        Could not agree more about these attempted man-slaughterers - one group that does fit the "for the hell of it" category. Sick to death of them bitching about getting caught, same as those who park on double-yellows, use mobile phones while driving or don't use the indicators if they only see pedestrians about.

        The tired old excuse that the limit sign was obsured is a bit thin with satnav and is nonsense if you're on a familiar road but you're entitled to argue it in court if you're sure. If you choose not to argue it then don't try to use it as a justification after the fact.

        Don't get me started on APNR though - if they just used it for average speed checks, TWOCking and BOLOs and deleted it immediately afterwards that would be fine. Of course we trust them to do that, don't we? *hollow laugh*

        Anyway, morning rant over. Maybe! :-)

      2. Hollerithevo Silver badge

        Re: Why Bother?

        We don't make crimninals' lives easy. But if we are putting ourselves in the moral high seat in order to judge them, then we must hold ourselves to high moral and ethical standards, such as consideration, care, fairness, the avoidance of cruelty. Otherwise we are merely brutes with more power than those brutes.

      3. theDeathOfRats

        Re: Why Bother?

        "Possession of a hamster without a license. One month in the cubes!"

    2. Insert sadsack pun here

      Re: Why Bother?

      "and I would think you'd cut contraband in prisons by 99% overnight"

      That's because you know so little about the issue. There will always be contraband as long as there are screws.

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Gimp

    The Ministry of Justice was spun out of the Home Office

    Good to know it's still maintaining it's parents reputation as a designated "Centre for Evil" in the UK.

    TBF I can see this might be a bit better than the HO facial recog trials in London. Consider the question.

    Is the live image we have of subject X the same as the picture we have of subject X ?

    Vs Does this live image of someone match one of the millions we've got stored in our mugshots database (even the ones who've never been convicted of a crime)?

    With the available processing power of a cheap laptop being (literally) 1000x greater than an AI workstation of the early 80's you'd think the former question would have a fighting chance of being answered on a near real time basis today.

    Still seems a very complex "technology fix" to poorly implemented checking systems.

  12. Jimmy2Cows
    WTF?

    "...visitors weren't cross-checked against any databases..."

    So how exactly was their identify verified? As that was apparently the whole point of this biometric harvesting exercise.

  13. Dan 55 Silver badge

    "campaign group Big Brother Watch"

    Be careful with this one. It's another one of those opaquely-funded groups which try to change government policy at 55 Tufton Street.

    Their agenda seems to be only jump on government, but the same thing were done by private companies they wouldn't have a problem with it.

    1. Anonymous IV
      Happy

      Re: "campaign group Big Brother Watch"

      It's another one of those opaquely-funded groups which try to change government policy at 55 Tufton Street.

      That seems a very limited ambition. Do they intend to extend the scope of government policy changing to the rest of Tufton Street? The whole of the London Borough of Westminster? London itself? Further? I think we should be told...

  14. Rich 2

    Alternatively....

    Why not just impose better isolation between the inmates and their visitors? Maybe not to the level of glass walls and telephones that you get on American police program but better than the apparent free-for-all that we have now

    Or is that idea not techie and AI enough?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Alternatively....

      once we've spend bilions to sort out AI tech, we will add a couple of milions for them glass walls too, why not...

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Alternatively....

        couple of milions for them glass walls too

        Sorry - we only appear to have glass ceilings in stock - will those do?

  15. tiggity Silver badge

    ID deficient

    Plenty of people with no passport or driving licence.

    With unwillingness of utility companies, banks etc, to send you paper statements, wanting everything online to save them pennies, it can be non trivial for people without passport and driving licence to get "proof of identity".

    As has already been said, prison staff are always a potential weak link as far as smuggling things go.

    For more sophisticated smuggling with infiltration of supply chain there's loads of options e.g. hiding it in food goods supplied to the prison and kitchen staff removing the contraband.

    And drones of course

    The goal posts will always move (impregnating materials in drugs used to be a thing until the authorities caught on, inmate could then just e.g. soak letter they received in some water and wait and voila LSD (or whatever hard to detect drug) solution to quaff ).

    "Low level" smuggling will be unaffected by fake ID as if family member / close friend feels enough pressure to smuggle then they will regardless ... and lots of "low level" contraband is from family / friends of inmates

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Politicians

    Should have biometrics scanned to access their office. To prevent imposters (see 1/2 of all sci-fi movies).

    I wonder how they will like all their data belonging to the same system they persecute people with. And the chuckles when they are mis-identified and arrested will be priceless.

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