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Landmark hearing finds use of facial recognition technology lawful

The High Court ruled in favour of South Wales Police in the UK to allow the continued use of automated facial recognition but the technology remains controversial.

Facial recognition technology can enable mass crowd surveillance
Facial recognition technology can enable mass crowd surveillance

The High Court has ruled in favour of the South Wales Police to allow the continued use of automated facial recognition (AFR) technology, which enables mass crowd surveillance, in response to a judicial review held in May by local man, Ed Bridges.


This comes as police forces across the nation recognise the potential biometrics has to improve the quality and efficiency of policing whilst reducing costs, with the UK Home Office planning to channel £97 million into a wider biometric technology strategy to safeguard our streets.


Recognition of responsibility


In a statement, chief constable Matt Jukes said that he recognised that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and face-matching technologies around the world is of great interest and at times, concern.


“So, I’m pleased that the court has recognised the responsibility that South Wales Police has shown in our programme. With the benefit of this judgment, we will continue to explore how to ensure the ongoing fairness and transparency of our approach," he said.


He continued: “We have always wrapped some good, common-sense decision-making by experienced police officers around the systems. But we’ve also underpinned this with careful legal work and the involvement of a range of bodies, including our own Police and Crime Commissioner and Ethics Committee.


“There is, and should be, a political and public debate about wider questions of privacy and security. It would be wrong in principle for the police to set the bounds of our use of new technology for ourselves."


Jason Tooley, chief revenue officer at Veridium and board member of techUK, said as police forces recognise that biometrics can drive improved policing, there is a need to focus on how the technology can be implemented quickly by officers whilst gaining widespread public acceptance.


"The use of biometrics has been proven to greatly enhance identity verification at scale, as seen in many countries where officers currently use consumer technology to verify suspects on-demand,” he said.

“Citizens need to understand that the value add of this innovative technology is in the public interest, which will drive consent and acceptance."

He said that as part of a broader digital policing initiative, it is imperative for police forces to take a strategic approach as they trial biometric technologies, and not “prematurely focus” on one biometric approach, highlighting that digital fingerprint based authentication is still widely regarded as having a higher level of maturity.


“It delivers a lower false positive result and ensures a higher level of public consent due to its maturity as an identity verification technique. Facial recognition, when used as a stand-alone biometric, can suffer from the risk of challenge or refusal to accept, with issues such as gender and racial bias, or scenarios such as poor lighting and wearing accessories impacting on reliability.


Veridium’s authentication platform, for example, enables companies to secure identity and privacy in the digital world by proving a person is who they say they are with biometrics and their smartphone, using technology like its 4 Fingers Touchless ID to ensure compliance.


Tooley added: “It is clear that alleviating human rights and privacy concerns over facial recognition must be prioritised by the police. Citizens need to understand that the value add of this innovative technology is in the public interest, which will drive consent and acceptance."


Continuing controversy


Despite this positive outcome for South Wales Police, the effectiveness of facial recognition technology continues to be seen as controversial. Last month the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK issued a statement over concern about the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London while civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch, warned of a facial recognition ‘epidemic’ across privately owned sites.


In response to the Judicial Review, Big Brother Watch stated: "[The] judgement acknowledges that live facial recognition surveillance by South Wales Police interferes with the public’s privacy rights but contends that its use, even to monitor peaceful protesters, is lawful”


It added: “We feel that people in Wales have been let down.”


Big Brother Watch is now waiting for the Metropolitan Police to decide whether it intends to use live facial recognition surveillance again. “If they do, we’ll take them to court,” said the camaign group, which is currently running a campaign on the legal crowdfunding site, Crowd Justice.


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