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The ethics of facial recognition

Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer also calls for regulation and governance around the technology

Facial recognition technology is the subject of ethical and regulatory debate
Facial recognition technology is the subject of ethical and regulatory debate

Following a six-month investigation, an independent panel that advises London’s City Hall on the ethics of policing has issued a series of recommendations on the use of facial recognition technology.


The Metropolitan Police (the Met) has been trialling live facial recognition technology to understand how effective it will be in supporting police operations. The technology automatically checks people passing a camera in a public place that are checked against images on a ‘watch-list’ specially selected on police databases.


The Ethics Panel’s report examined the Met’s use to ensure the trials move forward in a way that sustains public trust. It found that images that appear to match those on the watch-list are first checked by officers and if it’s believed there is a credible match, a decision is made on operational grounds to speak to the person identified. It found the recording is retained for 30 days whilst a technical assessment is carried out, before being deleted.


The report concluded that there is a lack of clarity about the legal basis for the use of the technology and its regulation and has recommended that the Met should publish its view on the legality of using facial recognition technology before any further trials. As there is no national commissioner or framework for the use of this digital technology, the panel concluded the Met should continue working closely with the relevant commissioners to ensure proper oversight of its use.


The panel’s view is that the trials would be more effective with public support and set out a series of recommendations to achieve that. This includes:

  • Members of the public seeking information about trials should be able to find these quickly and easily on the Met’s website
  • The Met should inform Londoners of the questions the trials are intended to address and why public participation is necessary
  • Trial sites should be selected to minimise perceptions of bias against certain communities
  • When informing Londoners about trials, the met should state that declining to be scanned would not be viewed as grounds for suspicion
  • The Met should set out, as a condition of continuing with trials, how it will go about making future decisions on where and when the technology is used and how it will engage with Londoners on it.

The panel has commissioned a public opinion survey on Londoner’s views on facial recognition and other technologies, and will be publishing its findings later this year, as part of a fuller report.


“We firmly believe in the principles of policing by consent in London and to do that we have to ensure we maintain the full support and trust of Londoners in the Metropolitan Police,” said Sophie Linden, deputy mayor for policing and crime.


“The Ethics Panel’s report sets out a clear set of recommendations, focusing on a series of measures the Met can take to improve communications with Londoners about how and why facial recognition technology is used now, and in future trials. We will oversee this and will work closely with senior officers at the Met to ensure these measures are carried out.”


Commander Ivan Balhatchet of the Met welcomed the findings and said a number of the recommendations made in the report have already been implemented. “There is currently no specific legal framework in the use of this technology and we are therefore keen to ensure that the appropriate legal and ethical frameworks are in place to support its use,” he added.


The South Wales police was recently criticised by a UN report for its use of facial recognition technology and the increasing use of the technology by cities and agencies is attracting public and private sector debate. Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, has called for the need for public regulation and corporate responsibility around the technology and said that it requires both the public and private sectors alike to step up and to act.


In his blog he wrote that the only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself. “And if there are concerns about how a technology will be deployed more broadly across society, the only way to regulate this broad use is for the government to do so. This in fact is what we believe is needed today – a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission,” he wrote.


He said that while some people are calling for tech companies to make these decisions – and while Microsoft recognises a clear need to exercise of responsibility – he believes this is an “inadequate substitute” for decision-making by the public and its representatives in a democratic republic.


He added: “We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government.”


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