High Court judges have ruled that the use of automated facial recognition (AFR) by police is lawful, in a landmark decision that privacy campaigners fear could set a precedent for the proliferation of biometric mass surveillance.
The world’s first case against AFR was brought by human rights group Liberty on behalf of Ed Bridges, a Cardiff resident whose face was scanned both at an anti-arms protest and while doing his Christmas shopping during a trial of AFR by South Wales Police.
Judges ruled that South Wales Police’s use of AFR was consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and existing data protection legislation. They found that the current legal regime was adequate for the deployment, although they added that it would have to be subject to periodic review.
Proponents of the technology argue that it can improve the quality and efficiency of policing while cutting the costs. Jason Tooley, chief revenue officer at biometrics authentication company Veridium and board member of techUK, called the decision “a victory for technology innovation”.
“As police forces recognise that biometrics can drive improved policing, there is evidently a need to focus on how the technology can be implemented quickly by officers whilst gaining widespread public acceptance,” he said.
“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.”
Liberty disagreed, arguing that AFR is authoritarian, discriminatory and breaches human rights.
“Facial recognition is a highly intrusive surveillance technology that allows the police to monitor and track us all,” said Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding. “It is time that the government recognised the danger this dystopian technology presents to our democratic values and banned its use. Facial recognition has no place on our streets.”
Public opinion on AFR is more mixed. In a survey of 4,109 adults undertaken by the Ada Lovelace Institute and YouGov, 55 percent of respondents said that the government should limit police use of facial recognition to specific circumstances, while 46 percent wanted the right to opt-out of its use.
Whether their demands are met remains to be seen
What are the implications of the case?
The High Court decision may be a landmark, but it is not necessarily the end of the journey for opponents of AFR use by police. An appeal against the decision is expected and the Information Commissioner’s Office has announced that it will be reviewing the judgment carefully.
Whatever their conclusions, the decision does not reflect blanket approval for use of the technology by law enforcement agencies.
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