Live biometric facial recognition use by South Wales Police ruled unlawful by appeals court

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The use of facial biometrics for automatic public identification by South Wales Police has been declared unlawful by the UK Court of Appeal, which agreed with the plaintiff on three of five points raised, the BBC reports.

Cardiff resident Ed Bridges and civil rights group Liberty had brought the challenge against police use of the system for automatic facial recognition (AFR), sometimes also known as live or ‘real-time’ facial recognition, which was dismissed by a High Court ruling last September.

The Appeals Court found that there is no clear guidance on where AFR Locate could be used or who could be placed on a watchlist, and that the data protection impact assessment performed by the police was deficient. It also said South Wales Police did not take reasonable steps to ensure the technology they used was free from racial or gender bias.

The police force does not plan to appeal the decision, and instead claimed to welcome it.

“The test of our ground-breaking use of this technology by the courts has been a welcome and important step in its development,” said South Wales Police Chief Constable Matt Jukes. “I am confident this is a judgment that we can work with.”

South Wales Police have trialed facial recognition technology since 2017, and said in its response to the ruling that it has resulted in the arrest of 61 wanted suspects. The force says it is still “completely committed to its careful development and deployment.” The force also expressed pride that there have been no unlawful arrests due to the technology’s use in South Wales.

“This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool,” Bridges commented, according to the BBC.

“For three years now, South Wales Police has been using it against hundreds of thousands of us, without our consent and often without our knowledge. We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance.”

Liberty’s barrister argued during a remote hearing last month that the clearer laws and guidance on fingerprint biometrics would make the exact same process as AFR Locate performs unlawful if it were performed with that biometric modality instead of facial recognition. He also argued that proportional use so far is not sufficient to ensure future proportionate use, in the absence of proper safeguards.

Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter responded to the ruling with a blog post calling for “a full review of the legislative landscape,” including an update to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.

Technology ethicist Stephanie Hare expressed concern to New Scientist that the ruling applies narrowly to a particular use by a single police force, and called for a national decision on the use of facial recognition.

“The judgment doesn’t mean that police use of facial recognition technology in England and Wales is illegal, but it must be used in accordance with a very clear, detailed and proportionate legal framework, which was lacking in this case,” points out Angela Daly of the Centre for Internet Law and Policy at the University of Strathclyde to New Scientist.

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