Police use of facial recognition ruled lawful by High Court

Challenge brought against South Wales force is rejected by judges

Credit: PA

High Court judges have ruled that the use of automated facial-recognition (AFR) technology by the police is lawful.

The ruling concluded a legal challenge against South Wales Police brought by Cardiff man Ed Bridges – whose case was backed by human rights campaign group Liberty. 

Bridges had challenged the legality of the use of the technology on the grounds that it contravened both human rights and data protection legislation. He also contended that the deployment of AFR was not “in accordance with the public sector equality duty contained in the Equality Act 2010”.

His application for a judicial review has been “refused… on all grounds”.

Judges found that, while South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology did “engage” the privacy rights of citizens whose images were captured, it did so with “sufficient legal controls… and [was] legally justified”.

The court acknowledged that the use of AFR did involve the “collecting and processing” of citizens’ personal data. But, once again, judges concluded that this data-processing “was lawful and met the conditions set out” in last year’s Data Protection Act.

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Judges were “also satisfied that before commencing the trial of AFR… [South Wales Police] had complied with the requirements of the public sector equality duty”.

Bridges has said he will appeal the decision.

“South Wales Police has been using facial recognition indiscriminately against thousands of innocent people, without our knowledge or consent,” he added. “This sinister technology undermines our privacy and I will continue to fight against its unlawful use to ensure our rights are protected and we are free from disproportionate government surveillance.”

Facial recognition is not yet widely used in law enforcement, but South Wales Police is one a handful of forces to trial the technology “with a view to it being rolled out nationally”, judges said. 

The application brought by Bridges concerned the police’s AFR Locate tool, which processes camera images in real time and compares facial biometric data with that contained on a watchlist of wanted persons. South Wales Police has thus far used AFR Locate on 50 separate occasions.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has, in recent months, voiced its concerns about the growing use of facial recognition – describing it as a “priority area” of work for the regulator.

In response to today’s ruling, an ICO spokesperson said: “We will be reviewing the judgment carefully. We welcome the court’s finding that the police use of live facial recognition (LFR) systems involves the processing of sensitive personal data of members of the public, requiring compliance with the Data Protection Act 2018. This new and intrusive technology has the potential, if used without the right privacy safeguards, to undermine rather than enhance confidence in the police.”

The spokesperson added: “Our investigation into the first police pilots of this technology has recently finished. We will now consider the court’s findings in finalising our recommendations and guidance to police forces about how to plan, authorise and deploy any future LFR systems. In the meantime, any police forces or private organisations using these systems should be aware that existing data protection law and guidance still apply.”


Sam Trendall

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