Legal changes proposed by the Home Office are the first step towards facial recognition searches of the DVLA's database — which covers most adults.
Police minister Chris Philp has called the technology a 'game-changing' crackdown on crime. He said he wants all cases of shoplifting, burglary and other thefts with security camera footage to be compared against the Home Office's passport and immigration databases.
Now, preliminary changes to laws governing how the police access DVLA records potentially open the way for motorists' records to be scanned as well. However, the change would not be introduced without a full consultation process and would be likely to require further legislation, it is understood.
A Home Office spokesman said the initial step – set out in the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament – would 'clarify the law around safeguarding and accountability of police forces' use of DVLA records'.
But they denied reports that the same measures would allow such data to be used for facial recognition trawls by police.
'It does not allow for automatic access to DVLA records for facial recognition,' the spokesman said. 'Any further developments would be subject to further engagement as the public would expect.'
Wide use of facial recognition technology would allow police – theoretically – to solve every theft where there is footage of an offender, such as from shop CCTV systems, dashcams and video doorbells. Advanced technology can now provide a match with even a blurred or partial image of an offender's face. Mr Philp told the Conservative Party Conference in October that the Home Office will develop a single 'integrated database' allowing police to seamlessly compare security camera footage with images held by the Government. Forces will be expected to carry out the database searches under new guidelines which require them to follow up 'all reasonable lines of inquiry'.
The College of Policing announced in August that officers in England and Wales will have to consider all potential evidence –including CCTV – if it could lead to a suspect or stolen property.
Ministers believe that carrying out facial recognition checks as part of the investigation process would create a highly effective deterrent against crime.
Critics claim facial recognition technology poses a threat to privacy, however.
Chris Jones, of civil liberties group Statewatch, told The Guardian that automatic scans of DVLA records could 'put anyone in the country with a driving licence into a permanent police line-up'. He added: 'More surveillance and snooping powers will not make people safer.'