Police face legal action over facial recognition technology

Facial recognition technology is still in its nascency, but law enforcers are testing out the solution already. Are they jumping on the bandwagon too early?
18 June 2018

The South Wales Police is resorting to using automated facial recognition, a solution that isn’t perfect as yet. Source: Shutterstock

In the United Kingdom, the police force has been using facial recognition technology for more than a few months now.

In fact, according to a recent news report, the force has been using the technology since mid-2016 and at the end of last year, tested it at the 2017 Champions League finals in Cardiff on more than 170,000 people.

The police force in the UK hasn’t been entirely successful with the technology, and although it has resulted in the arrest and conviction of a few criminals, citizens aren’t satisfied.

In fact, campaigners are currently raising funds to take legal action against the police force as they feel that the surveillance is unregulated and violates privacy.

Tech turning citizens into walking ID cards

Big Brother Watch, describes itself as “a cross-party non-profit campaign organization leading the protection of privacy and civil liberties at a time of enormous technological change in the UK”, and is leading the fundraiser.

The organization is calling on the Government and the Metropolitan Police (the Met) to immediately “end the police’s lawless use of dangerously authoritarian facial recognition cameras.”

Its campaign website claims that the Met has targeted Notting Hill Carnival twice and has even used the technology on Remembrance Sunday – even though they didn’t have a lawful basis for using them.

These real-time facial recognition cameras are biometric checkpoints, identifying members of the public without their knowledge. Police have begun feeding secret watchlists to the cameras, containing not only criminals but suspects, protesters, football fans and innocent people with mental health problems.

The organization also has the support of Baroness Jones, a member of the House of Lords.

According to the Guardian, two legal challenges have been launched against police forces in South Wales and London over their use of automated facial recognition (AFR) technology.

Big Brother Watch and Baroness Jones have written to the Metropolitan Police and Home Secretary demanding that they end their lawless use of dangerously authoritarian facial recognition cameras. It is a clear breach of privacy rights and freedom of expression in the UK.

The organization also seems to have roped in Rosa Curling of Leigh Day solicitors, and Stephen Cragg QC and Adam Straw of Doughty Street Chambers to lead the legal proceedings.

Liberty, another organization interested in the freedom of citizens is supporting Ed Bridges, a Cardiff resident, who has written to the chief constable of South Wales Police alleging he was tracked at a peaceful anti-arms protest and while out shopping.

What’s the real argument?

The point that (most) citizens are trying to make is simple. The technology isn’t ready and hence, it’s not very useful.

However, when law enforcement officers make decisions based on such software, it’s a cause for concern.

In the 2017 Champions League final, for example, the automated facial recognition system identified 2,470 potential matches.

However, official figures uncovered by the Guardian suggest that 92 percent (2,297) of those were found to be “false positives”.

Figures also revealed that 46 people were wrongly identified at an Anthony Joshua fight, while there were 42 false positives from a rugby match between Wales and Australia in November.

In response, the South Wales Police claimed that “no facial recognition system is 100% accurate”. Instead, its spokesperson pointed out that the technology has led to more than 450 arrests since its introduction.

“Successful convictions so far include six years in prison for robbery and four-and-a-half years imprisonment for burglary. The technology has also helped identify vulnerable people in times of crisis,” the spokesperson told the Guardian.

Despite the teething troubles, there’s hope that the technology will get better with time. According to the Washington Post, facial recognition technology has helped China’s police force make thousands of arrests so far.