Face recognition should only be used by police to target serious crime, says information commissioner

Facial recognition technology - JULIAN SIMMONDS
Facial recognition technology - JULIAN SIMMONDS

Facial recognition technology should only be deployed by police to hunt down serious criminals, says the information commissioner, as she demanded a new statutory code to protect people’s privacy.

Elizabeth Denham warned police they should not use the cameras in a “blanket, opportunistic and indiscriminate” way to scan thousands of people in public places so they could catch “a few minor suspects or persons of interest.”

She also demanded images of up to 21 million people arrested but never charged should be deleted from police databases and not used for “watchlists” of suspects against which images from the cameras are matched by computer algorithms.

The public should also be told when, where and why the cameras are being deployed by police and that any images taken of “innocent” people in public places should be immediately deleted.

Her proposed curbs are contained in the first legal opinion that she has ever issued and is likely to provide a blueprint for the new statutory code for live facial recognition (LFR) technology that she wants the Government to introduce.

Her move follows her investigation into the use of the cameras by police amid growing concern at the spread of “potentially invasive” technology that threatens individuals’ rights to privacy.

South Wales Police, the Metropolitan Police and Leicestershire’s constabulary have all conducted public trials of the cameras.

However, evidence has emerged of police sharing images of suspects with private sector firms such as at King’s Cross in London, Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield and the Trafford Centre in Manchester.

“LFR is a step change in policing techniques; never before have we seen technologies with the potential for such widespread invasiveness,” said Ms Denham. “My investigation raises serious concerns about the use of a technology that relies on huge amounts of sensitive personal information.

“We found that the current combination of laws, codes and practices relating to LFR will not drive the ethical and legal approach that’s needed to truly manage the risk that this technology presents.

“The absence of a statutory code that speaks to the specific challenges posed by LFR will increase the likelihood of legal failures and undermine public confidence in its use.”

Ms Denham’s ruling follows a test case against South Wales Police by an innocent member of the public who objected to the cameras. The judges ruled that it was justifiable and proportionate even though taking an image was as intrusive as a fingerprint or DNA swab.

Ms Denham warned that the High Court judgment should not be seen as a blanket authorisation for police forces to use LFR systems in all circumstances.

Instead, she said its deployment should have to meet a “high statutory threshold” where it could be shown there was a “demonstrable benefit to the public.” “An example is where LFR is used to locate a known terrorist suspect or violent criminal in a specific area,” she said.

She applied the same rule to “watchlists” which would most likely fall foul of the code if they had images solely of people who “wanted or suspected of non-serious offences.”

She said she had “serious concerns” about “watchlists” compiled using images from custody lists of people arrested but not charged. Police have been ordered by Government to destroy the estimated 21 million images but have pleaded cost and complexity for delaying doing so.

She acknowledged there was “high” support among the public for police to use facial recognition to catch criminals but there was less back for its use by the private sector in a “quasi-law enforcement capacity.”

She is now investigating private companies use of the technology which she warned was advancing with AI systems that could analyse people’s gait and predict emotions based on facial expressions.

“It is right that our police forces should explore how new techniques can help keep us safe,” she said.

But she added: “Moving too quickly to deploy technologies that can be overly invasive in people’s lawful daily lives risks damaging trust not only in the technology, but in the fundamental model of policing by consent. We must all work together to protect and enhance that consensus.”