Police guidance on facial recognition technology ‘a hammer blow to privacy’

The College of Policing published a guide for police officers to make sure use of live facial recognition technology is ‘legal and ethical’.

22 March 2022

Innocent people like victims and potential witnesses could be placed on police watchlists under guidance on the use of facial recognition systems, civil liberties groups have warned.

Campaigners branded guidance being sent to forces about how to use live facial recognition technology an “atrocious policy and a hammer blow to privacy and liberty in our country”, claiming it could also mean people with mental health problems could be placed on a list if sought by police.

The College of Policing published a guide for officers in England and Wales on Tuesday to make sure their use of live facial recognition technology is “legal and ethical”.

It comes after the Court of Appeal in 2020 ruled that the use of facial recognition cameras by South Wales Police as a pilot scheme ahead of a nationwide rollout breached privacy rights and broke equalities law.

The college said the technology can be used in operations to find “people who are missing and potentially at a risk of harm; find people where intelligence suggests that they may pose a threat to themselves or others; and arrest people who are wanted by police or courts”.

This could include terrorists or stalkers who police have intelligence on.

But the guidance said “images that may be deemed appropriate” for inclusion on a watchlist include “a victim of an offence or a person who the police have reasonable grounds to suspect would have information of importance and relevance to progress an investigation, or who is otherwise a close associate of an individual”.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, told the PA news agency: “We warned about mission creep with this Orwellian surveillance technology and now we see that this new policy specifically allows innocent people to be put on facial recognition watchlists.

“This includes victims, potential witnesses, people with mental health problems, or possible friends of any of those people. It is an atrocious policy and a hammer blow to privacy and liberty in our country.

“Parliament has never debated facial recognition or passed a law allowing it to be used. The public wants police to catch criminals but no one wants dangerously inaccurate tech turning our streets into police line-ups.

“Parliament should ban live facial recognition until it has properly considered the extraordinary risks it poses to rights and freedoms in Britain.”

Live facial recognition “turns a digital image into a numerical value before comparing it with images on a police database” which should be chosen specifically each time the technology is used, the college said.

The technology has been used by a small number of police forces to “detect crime and keep people safe” but critics have cited privacy concerns over plans for its wider use.

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, said: “Introducing new guidance does not solve the underlying problem that facial recognition technology does not make people safer, as it still collects sensitive biometric data from everyone that passes through the camera, fundamentally changing the way we move through public spaces.

“The safest, and only, thing to do with facial recognition is to ban it.”

David Tucker, head of crime at the College of Policing, said: “Guidance issued for police today is clear that live facial recognition should be used in a responsible, transparent, fair and ethical way and only when other, less intrusive methods would not achieve the same results.

“The technology will help police catch some of the most dangerous offenders including stalkers, terrorists and others that the public want off our streets.

“It will be used overtly and unless a critical threat is declared, the public should be notified in advance on force websites or social media about its use.

“We hope that those with concerns about this technology will be reassured by the careful safeguards we’ve set out as requirements for the police who wish to use it, based on a consistent and clear legal and ethical framework across all police forces.”

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