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British politicians call for pause in use of facial recognition tech by police

Live facial recognition software is already used by some police forces in the UK including the Met in London.

By Ryan Morrison

MPs and Lords from across the political spectrum have called for a pause on the use of live facial recognition technology by UK police. It comes after policing minister Chris Philip suggested forces could be given access to the passport image database for use in facial recognition activities. Lawmakers have joined the campaign led by pressure group Big Brother Watch to call for a wider debate and parliamentary scrutiny of the technology.

Police say live facial recognition software allows them to watch out for high-risk suspects or those on a watchlist (Photo: pixinoo/Shutterstock)
Police say live facial recognition software allows them to watch out for high-risk suspects or those on a watchlist. (Photo by pixinoo/Shutterstock)

The campaign, made up of 31 groups including Liberty, Amnesty International and the Race Equality Foundation, includes 65 politicians from the House of Lords and Commons and come from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Veteran Tory MP David Davis, Labour’s Diane Abbot and Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey are among those lending their voices to the campaign.

In a statement, the group explained that despite holding differing views on live facial recognition surveillance, they agree that there are enough issues with how it is being used to call for a pause on its usage. This includes a lack of an evidence base, an unproven case of necessity or proportionality, a lack of a sufficient legal basis, the lack of parliamentary consideration, and the lack of a democratic mandate. 

“We call on UK police and private companies to immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance,” the group said. They are demanding a full-scale parliamentary and public debate take place so that appropriate safeguards can be introduced.

The draft EU AI Act bans police use of facial recognition technology in public places. It is considered high risk due to the chance of false positives and bias. Police services in Europe will also not be able to scrape facial images from the internet, CCTV footage or other database to create a facial recognition database.

No such ban is being proposed in the UK, and campaigners haven’t gone as far as to call for one. However, they do want a slowdown and step back before the use of the technology becomes so pervasive it is impossible to stop.

Concern over wider image library use for facial recognition

The idea of opening up the 45 million images contained in the passport database to police facial recognition technology was put forward by Philp, the policing minister, earlier this week. The Home Office didn’t explicitly confirm that was happening or in the works, but told Tech Monitor it was “working with policing to enable seamless searching of relevant images where it is necessary and proportionate for them to do so to investigate crime and protect the public”.

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Civil liberty campaigners described this plan as “Orwellian” and a gross violation of British privacy principles. Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo said: “The UK’s reckless approach to face surveillance makes us a total outlier in the democratic world, especially against the backdrop of the EU’s proposed ban.”

The Met Police, which actively uses live facial recognition cameras and is considering their use on officer body warn cameras says they help to keep people safe. Saying live use of facial recognition technology can act “as a real-time aid to help officers to help them locate people on a ‘watchlist’ who are sought by the police”.

A report published earlier this year by the Ada Lovelace Institute on the legal governance of biometric technologies found that the current legal framework is not fit for purpose. This was due to a fragmented patchwork of laws. Michael Birtwistle, associate director of law and policy at the institute, said: “We are concerned by reports that the government intends to repurpose the UK passport images database for police use. The accuracy and scientific basis of facial recognition technologies is highly contested, and their legality is uncertain.”

Big Brother Watch and the associated campaigners said in a statement: “This dangerously authoritarian surveillance is a threat to our privacy and freedoms – it has no place on the streets of Britain,” and called for a debate in parliament and an investigation into its use.

Read more: Concern over police ‘using passport images’ for facial recognition

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