Regulator calls for ‘informed public debate’ on facial recognition

Written by Sam Trendall on 12 September 2019 in News
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Biometrics commissioner calls on government ministers to lead discussion

Credit: Shari Jo from Pixabay 

With the use of automated facial recognition (AFR) becoming increasingly common, the UK Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles has called on government ministers to instigate an “informed public debate” about the technology.

Following a legal challenge led by human rights campaign organisation Liberty, the High Court recently ruled that the use of facial recognition in trials conducted by South Wales Police was lawful. 

The ruling – and the result of the pending appeal – could prove significant, as the case represents “the first time that any court in the world has considered AFR”, Wiles said in a written response to the judgement.


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The commissioner noted that the judgement “considers solely the use of AFR by the police rather than any other public or indeed private bodies”. He added that, irrespective of the details of the South Wales Police case, “there remains a wider issue – which is not limited to whether there is a legal basis for the police to carry out trials of AFR”.

Wiles said: “The bigger question going forward is whether there should be a specific legal framework for the police – and others – to routinely deploy new biometrics including AFR, but also voice recognition, gait analysis, iris analysis or other new biometric technologies as they emerge. The judgement in this case does not provide the answer to this, which is, in my view, for ministers and parliament to decide.”

The growing use of biometric technology means that now is the time to take “strategic decisions about the future world we want to live in”, according to the commissioner. Such decisions should be informed by a government-led effort to engage citizens in discussing the issues at hand.

“Up until now, insofar as there has been a public debate, it has been about the police trialling of facial image matching in public places and whether this is lawful or whether in future it ought to be lawful,” Wiles said. “However, the debate has now expanded as it has emerged that private sector organisations are also using the technology for a variety of different purposes. Public debate is still muted but that does not mean that the strategic choices can therefore be avoided because, if we do so, our future world will be shaped in unknown ways by a variety of public and private interests: the very antithesis of strategic decision-making in the collective interest that is the proper business of government and parliament.”

He added: “The use of biometrics and artificial intelligence analysis is not the only strategic question the country presently faces. However, that is no reason not to have an informed public debate to help guide our lawmakers. I hope that ministers will take an active role in leading such a debate in order to examine how the technologies can serve the public interest whilst protecting the rights of individuals citizens to a private life without the unnecessary interference of either the state or private corporations.”

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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