Facing the Consequences: The UK data protection watchdog has raised concerns over the legality of facial recognition

November 13, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The UK data protection watchdog has called for legal guidance on the rise of live facial recognition and urged police to restrain their use of it.

What does this mean?

Following privacy concerns, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has said that facial technology should only be used when “strictly necessary for law enforcement purposes” and that there must be a “demonstrable benefit to the public”. She added that her office hopes to work with other government agencies to implement a new statutory code. This will have a “high statutory threshold” to combat the “widespread invasiveness” of the technology. Further proposals include deleting pictures of innocent people immediately and informing the public when facial recognition is in operation. These demands follow an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office of the police’s use of cameras.

What's the big picture effect?

Live facial recognition allows faces captured on CCTV to be streamed directly to a database that contains police watch lists. Concerns have also been raised about biases as the technology is more likely to wrongly identify dark-skinned people and women. This could mean that innocent people will have their details and picture captured on record, despite not having committed a crime.  Campaigners denounce the lack of political debate about this issue and warn of a “surveillance crisis”. They argue that politicians should properly scrutinise live facial recognition before it is adopted in the UK.

This comes after controversy earlier this year where the police supplied images to a database used for facial recognition of people on the Kings Cross site. The property company became one of the first to say it had used facial recognition, citing reasons of public safety, but abandoned plans to extend its use after heavy criticism. In September, South Wales police were found to be using automated facial recognition lawfully by the High Court. They are one of three UK police forces to use facial recognition since 2015, including the Met and Leicestershire police. The Information Commissioner has said that the decision should not be used as a “blanket authorisation for police forces to use live facial recognition systems in all circumstances”.

The key issues here are the lack of accuracy provided by the technology, a lack of consent from the public and a severe lack of privacy. The legal challenge is to balance these issues with public safety and the prevention of crime that facial recognition can provide. With such fundamental principles at stake, facial recognition is clearly an area that needs to be debated further and, potentially, further legislated on.

Report written by Elizabeth Marshall

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