Face the Facts: Landmark trial rules that the use of facial recognition by police is unlawful

September 4, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Civil rights campaigner Ed Bridges, successfully appealed a case against automatic facial recognition (AFR) images captured by South Wales Police (SWP). It remains to be seen if law enforcement will change its use of the technology going forward.

What does this mean?

On Tuesday 12 August 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that SWP’s use of AFR technology is unlawful. AFR matches real-time CCTV footage against persons of interest in a custody database. This case was the world’s first legal challenge to the use of AFR technology and overturned a previous High Court decision that asserted AFR was lawful because its use was necessary and proportionate (in September 2019). 

Ed Bridges had his image captured by AFR in 2017 while Christmas shopping and in 2018 at a peaceful anti-arms protest. Mr Bridges, who SWP confirms was not a person of interest and has never been on a watchlist, said being identified by AFR without consent caused him distress.

The court held that the use of AFR by SWP breaches data protection and equality laws as well as privacy rights. The ruling did not completely ban the application of facial recognition technology in the UK, but it does mean law enforcement agencies must comply with human rights provisions.

What's the big picture effect?

From accessing smartphones and bank accounts to travelling abroad, devices that apply our biometric information are commonplace. With AFR, however, the dubious aspect of biometric collection has hit the spotlight because images are collected and stored by the police without public consent or knowledge.

Following the ruling, future deployment of AFR technology by the police will follow much clearer legal parameters. Nonetheless, the police insist the decision was not a fatal blow and are confident they can work with the judgment.

“There is nothing in the Court of Appeal judgment that fundamentally undermines the use of facial recognition to protect the public,” said Jeremy Vaughan, the national policing lead for facial recognition.

The police value AFR so highly because the identification of a suspect typically used to take two weeks to achieve. Now, the same outcome can be fulfilled in a day. However, 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. Check out our report on that here.

Civil rights groups see the ruling as a landmark case in the fight against AFR. Silkie Carlo, Executive Director of Big Brother Watch, believes the decision is “a huge step forward and it should deter police from lawlessly rolling out other kinds of oppressive technologies they’ve been looking at”.

The debate around the ethics of AFR is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. So long as the police continue to collect and store images without public consent or knowledge, fears of a dystopian surveillance state will remain. What has been made clear by the force’s response to the ruling is that AFR will form a major part of the new technologies used to keep citizens safe going forward.

Report written by Thomas Farrell

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