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Home Office hears caution but wants action on facial recognition surveillance

Home Office hears caution but wants action on facial recognition surveillance

It does not look like the United Kingdom will soon find consensus on how facial recognition systems are used by police.

Lord Bishop of Oxford Steven Croft has asked the Home Office to slow the rollout of AI surveillance networks by law enforcement agencies including forces in London and south Wales.

Croft wants the government to establish governance rules and oversight on deployments and operations given small but persistent error rates in algorithms and the harm that this can result.

Think again, said Susan Williams, minister of state for the Home Office, according reporting by Welsh news outlet Nation.Cymru. Williams‘ office is responsible for national matters involving data, identity, digital technology as well as countering terrorism.

She is quoted in the article saying, “I do not think we need to slow it down — quite the contrary.”

Williams says police should be made to explain “why, who and where they are using their deployments.” According to the article, she did not address high-priority concerns including ethics, performance standards or consequences for misapplication of biometric surveillance.

The hot button issues have been explored by the Home Office in the past.

Croft’s statement in the House of Lords responded to a U.K. police association, the College of Policing, which has recently suggested guidelines for facial recognition use that, while broad, have been derided by privacy advocates for trying to give away the store. Too little attention was paid to privacy rights and too much latitude was suggested for indiscriminate police surveillance.

Meanwhile, Professor Fraser Sampson, Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England and Wales, characterized the application of facial recognition to identify potential witnesses, as advised in the College of Policing guidance, as “somewhat sinister.” Sampson was quoted by Sky News as saying the application “treats everyone like walk-on extras on a police film set rather than as individual citizens.”

Williams has been an outspoken advocate for facial recognition in police work for some time, saying that officers can check the work of software and catch errors before problems arise.

There is a financial limit to using people as a backstop for algorithms, however, she explained.

In a 2018 article in The Register, Williams said that after spending £2.6m to create a facial recognition system for South Wales Police, it was too expensive to hire staff to delete pictures of innocent people on watch lists.

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