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October 4, 2023updated 05 Oct 2023 9:13am

Police using passport images for facial recognition would be a ‘setback’ for trust in AI

The Home Office says it is working to provide the police with all tools necessary to catch criminals, including image databases.

By Ryan Morrison

Providing police with access to the passport image database for crime-fighting facial recognition could be a ‘setback’ for public trust in AI, experts have warned. The idea of opening up the 45 million plus images to police facial recognition technology has been put forward by policing minister Chris Philip, who says it would help tackle shoplifting.

The Home Office says it is working to provide police with all the tools and technology required to catch criminals (Photo: Trismegist san/Shutterstock)
The Home Office says it is working to provide police with all the tools and technology required to catch criminals. (Photo by Trismegist san/Shutterstock)

Speaking during a Policy Exchange debate held as part of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week, Philp described the algorithms used by the police for comparing CCTV and crime scene images with custody images as “extremely sophisticated”. He added that they even produce accurate results when the original images are fuzzy or blurred. 

The crime, policing and fire minister went on to tell the audience at the debate on ways to tackle shoplifting that the passport image database was fully searchable, if not directly linked to police systems. He wants to ensure that police always gather CCTV footage from a crime scene and “always run it through the facial recognition database” as part of a wider “zero tolerance approach” to shoplifting in the future.

During the conference, he also declared: “I’m going to be asking police forces to search all of those databases – the police national database, which has custody images, but also other databases like the passport database.”

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. 

UK regulation on the subject is less clear, spread across different pieces of legislation. This has not been aided by the closure of the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner’s office. Data watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) told Tech Monitor it is in discussion with the government over the proposals.

A Home Office spokesperson said it was committed to providing police with the tools and technology required to solve and prevent crimes, as well as bring offenders to justice. “Technology such as facial recognition can help the police quickly and accurately identify those wanted for serious crimes, as well as missing or vulnerable people,” the spokesperson said. “It also frees up police time and resources, meaning more officers can be out on the beat, engaging with communities and carrying out complex investigations.”

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While the Home Office spokesperson didn’t confirm or deny that police could be given access to the passport database, they did say: “We are 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.”

The move could result in bias and loss of trust in AI

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.”

Multiple groups, including a parliamentary select committee, the former biometrics commissioner Fraser Sampson and other experts, have expressed a need for a proper governance mechanism to be established before facial recognition technology is used. 

Privacy campaigners are opposed to police using facial recognition software because there are risks of misidentification and racial bias. The Met Police, which has been trialling the technology, said previously that during a review of its usage, it found “no statistically significant bias about race and gender,” adding that the chance of a false match was one in 6,000 people who pass the camera. 

Birtwistle says expanding the deployment of facial recognition to a database with 45 million images of members of the British public without their consent and such a framework would “risk creating an unprecedented public backlash, setting back trust in public sector use of data and AI.” He said there is some precedent for the potential backlash in the response to previous proposals to repurpose GP surgery records or other personal information.

“We urge the government to reconsider these proposals and look again at how the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill could be used to deliver the biometrics governance regime the UK so urgently needs,” he added.

Sampson agrees, telling the BBC that the state has a large collection of high-quality photographs of most of the population, including driving licences and passports but they were given for a specific purpose. “If the state routinely runs every photograph against every picture of every suspected incident of crime simply because it can, there is a significant risk of disproportionality and damaging public trust,” he said.

Read more: UK police facial recognition technology usage could be expanded

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