UK police can use controversial facial recognition tech, court rules

Getty Images / Matthew Horwood / Contributor

In a blow to privacy campaigners, a UK court has ruled that police use of facial recognition technology in Wales does not breach human rights laws.

South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology, which is able to match people’s likeliness to a pre-defined database of images, was challenged in the High Court. However, the court has ruled that the way the system is currently used doesn’t breach human rights, equality or UK data privacy rules.

The court case was the first legal challenge of police use of the technology. It was based around the use of live facial recognition technology, which is capable of working in real-time, at outdoor events. The legal challenge around the police use of the technology was brought by Ed Bridges, a university office worker who has lived in Cardiff for 20 years, and the human rights group Liberty.

Liberty and Bridges contested that the facial recognition systems indiscriminately captured the data of people in public places and that its use wasn’t proportionate.

It is believed that more than 500,000 people’s faces have been scanned during South Wales Police’s trials of the tech. Liberty has claimed the data captured by facial recognition systems is similar to obtaining an individuals DNA or fingerprints.

South Wales Police has been trialling facial recognition for a number of years and has consistently defended the technology, saying it used to help detect and prevent crime.

The automatic facial recognition system is composed of multiple parts. Initially cameras, usually attached to vans or poles, are used to capture still images of people’s faces. When a person’s face is detected a biometric map of the points on the face is created and checked against an existing database of images.

Once a potential match has been identified by the system officers are able to manually review the finding. From here they can decide whether it’s worth stopping the flagged person in the street. In the UK, 20 million photos of faces are in police databases.

“This disappointing judgment does not reflect the very serious threat that facial recognition poses to our rights and freedoms,” Megan Goulding, a lawyer for Liberty said in a statement. “Facial recognition is a highly intrusive surveillance technology that allows the police to monitor and track us all.”

The human rights group has called on the UK government to clarify how facial recognition technology can be used.

Bridges has said his data was captured by South Wales Police’s technology on two different occasions. The first was while he was shopping on Cardiff’s Queen Street in December 2017 and the second happened at an arms fair protest in on March 27, 2018. “I felt that it was unacceptable,” Bridges said of the facial recognition use at the protest before the case reached court. “The first time you knew it was there was when you were close enough to it to already have your image captured, which I found discomforting.”

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