Regulators issue warning over police use of facial recognition

Biometrics and information commissioners remind Met Police that questions remain over both legal footing and public sentiment 

Credit: Paul Robinson/CC BY-SA 3.0

The government’s Biometrics Commissioner, who oversees the police’s use of new technology, has joined human rights groups and MPs in criticising plans to roll out facial-recognition technology, and argued that a recent High Court judgement did not give police across the country carte blanche to introduce the cameras.

London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) last week announced that live facial recognition (LFR) cameras will be put into operational use at various locations around the capital. 

The deployment comes several months after judges ruled that the use of the technology by South Wales Police was lawful. That ruling came following a legal challenge mounted by Cardiffian Ed Bridges, supported by human rights organisation Liberty.

While that decision supported the police, Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles cautioned the Met that the case had related solely to how South Wales officers had used the technology.

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“It should be noted that the published legal mandate references the recent judgment of the High Court in Cardiff on the use of LFR by South Wales Police,” he said. “Although the court found South Wales’ use of LFR to be consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and data protection legislation, that judgement was specific to the particular circumstances in which South Wales Police used their LFR system. The Metropolitan Police will need to pay attention to those circumstances to which the court drew attention.”

Wiles added: “It should also be noted that the South Wales decision is now being appealed and that the new government gave a manifesto commitment to provide a strict legal framework to govern the future police use of biometrics and artificial intelligence.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office also issued a statement in response to the Met’s announcement. The data-protection regulator also sounded a note of caution, stating that while its own investigations had “found there was public support for police use of LFR… there needed to be improvements in how police authorised and deployed the technology if it was to retain public confidence and address privacy concerns”.

“We have received assurances from the MPS that it is considering the impact of this technology and is taking steps to reduce intrusion and comply with the requirements of data protection legislation,” the ICO said. “We expect to receive further information from the MPS regarding this matter in forthcoming days. The MPS has committed to us that it will review each deployment, and the ICO will continue to observe and monitor the arrangements for, and effectiveness of, its use.”

The watchdog added: “This is an important new technology with potentially significant privacy implications for UK citizens. We reiterate our call for government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice for LFR as a matter of priority. The code will ensure consistency in how police forces use this technology and to improve clarity and foreseeability in its use for the public and police officers alike. We believe it’s important for government to work with regulators, law enforcement, technology providers and communities to support the code.”

Political opposition
In September last year, a cross-party group of MPs joined a growing chorus of voices demanding that police halt the use of facial recognition.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, then Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, and Conservative MP David Davis signed the statement, which called on police to “immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance.”

“It should be noted that the South Wales decision is now being appealed and that the new government gave a manifesto commitment to provide a strict legal framework to govern the future police use of biometrics and artificial intelligence.”
Biometrics Commissioner, Paul Wiles

David Davis, former Brexit Secretary, said the move to roll out the new technology was “unwise”. 

The MPS has previously conducted trials of LFR at various locations around London. It has now decided to use the technology more widely and systematically, and will implement cameras at – undisclosed – “specific locations” across the city. 

These deployments will take place “where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders”, it said, and will be aimed at combatting serious crimes such as violent and armed offences and child sexual exploitation.

A tailored “watch list” of wanted people will be supplied for each installation of the technology, wherein cameras will watch over a “small, targeted area”. Uses of LFR cameras will be “clearly signposted”, the force said, and the technology will not integrate will CCTV or number-plate recognition devices.


Sam Trendall

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