Smile for the Camera?: Regulations questioned as live facial recognition arrives in London

May 19, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Despite unresolved regulatory concerns, London’s Metropolitan Police has expanded its use of live facial recognition technology (LFR) in London.

What does this mean?

Whilst strolling through the nation’s capital you might become aware of a new attraction. In locations that the Metropolitan Police has deemed to be likely scenes of “public space violence”, you may notice the presence of LFR cameras accompanied by clear signposting. This technology captures the faces of passers-by in real-time before assessing that individual’s biometric data against an offender “watchlist”.

This is not meant to be as scary or invasive as it sounds, but the lack of public debate and explicit legal authorisation does raise questions. In particular, the human rights association, Liberty, has criticised the widespread use of this type of technology in the public sphere, emphasising the lack of legal clarity. This is compounded by claims from Big Brother Watch, a civil liberty charity, that LFR has a false-positive rate of 98%.

What's the big picture effect?

This story is part of a growing discussion about the role of emerging technologies in people’s daily lives, particularly when it is state-utilised. Personal data is a concept with which more and more people are becoming familiar, and the lack of consent involved in the LFR process will only create hostility to the measures. Previous trials of the technology, such as in 2019 at the World Museum in Liverpool, have already been met with substantial backlash. Its usage has led commentators to declare that we are in the midst of a “privacy emergency” and on a slippery slope to a surveillance state.

In this way, increasing the presence of LFR will only exacerbate the call for regulation. At present, the permitting legislation is very unclear and there is not one law which is explicit about its use. Among other legislation, however, it is indirectly regulated by the Data Protection Act 2018 (regarding the gathering and handling of images) and the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Yet, these are deemed unsatisfactory for a multitude of reasons. For example, private companies are currently able to use the technology without the authorities’ permission, ripe for exploitation. Additionally, in  September 2019, the High Court in Cardiff found that South Wales Police’s use of LFR was lawful based on the limits in time and space and its minimal impact. Indeed, there is a pressing need for greater unification which sets out how LFR should be used and regulated, from who is responsible, to what and how it should be regulated. Given the rate of technological development, legislators need to ensure that the law is constantly adapted to meet the needs of the public.

However, it is important to not lose sight of the purpose. One of the key reasons for the implementation of this technology would be to increase efficiency and performance, saving Metropolitan Police staff time, with hopes of aligning with its motto of “working together for a safer London”. Ultimately, authorities will have to find a balance between keeping the public safe whilst not undermining personal freedoms.

To read more about the debates surrounding the legality and regulation of facial recognition, check out our articles here and here.

Report written by Katrina Hughes

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