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New guidance on live facial recognition use by British police sparks debate

Biometrics Commissioner concerned, Corsight CEO encouraged
New guidance on live facial recognition use by British police sparks debate

The College of Policing has published guidance on the overt use of live facial recognition to find people of interest to the police in England and Wales. Although welcomed for its clarity by the private sector and commitment to an ethical approach to the technology by the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (BSCC), Fraser Sampson, the commissioner nonetheless has raised some concerns.

The College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice (CoP APP) on Live Facial Recognition goes into great detail and refers to external academic studies as well as the BSCC. The College of Policing overview provides a useful summary that live facial recognition (LFR)  technology should be used only when other, less intrusive methods would not achieve the same results, that it should be used in a proportionate, responsible, fair and ethical way, be based on intelligence, have clear start and end times, and be used with crime commissioner oversight.

It is based on consultation with the public, campaign groups and regulatory bodies following the case of Ed Bridges vs the South Wales Police in 2020, when the police force’s automated use of facial biometrics was found unlawful by the UK Court of Appeal.

The new national guidance does not cover use by private companies or public organizations, retrospective facial recognition, manually instigated facial recognition, near-real-time facial search submitted via a mobile device or any covert use of LFR.

Concerns from the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner

Fraser Sampson has published a list of concerns on the APP, to the extent that the future of what it means to be a UK citizen may require parliamentary debate.

Sampson is concerned about the apparent intention to use LFR to find potential witnesses, and the difference between allowing people to come forward and actively seeking them. The approach would mean that the police would already need images of people in their databases to make such matches:

“If this envisages tracking people and approaching them to confirm whether they were at a certain place on that date and then ‘inviting’ them to disclose what they heard and saw solely because someone’s surveillance system thinks they were present, that’s a new and somewhat sinister development which potentially treats everyone like walk-on extras on a police film set rather than as individual citizens free to travel, meet and talk,” he writes.

Sampson queries the definitions and terminology around different types of biometrics and forensics such as live versus retrospective and questions whether there will be adequate training for police and awareness among the public.

The commissioner is concerned that the under-representation of minority ethnic populations in British policing may lead to issues with the implementation of the technology by police. He asks what happens with the use of different biometric templates in different jurisdictions and whether this could lead to problems in the tracking of persons, for example traveling into the UK via the Channel Tunnel.

Overall, Sampson, who has subsequently said he was not consulted by the Department of Education which has drafted plans for code of practice for putting facial recognition cameras into schools, is concerned that the APP treats the issue as being about data rights, rather than the greater impact on society: if people decide not to travel, meet, talk because of surveillance.

“The ramifications for our constitutional freedoms in that future are profound,” writes Sampson. “Is the status of the UK citizen shifting from our jealously guarded presumption of innocence to that of ‘suspected until we have proved our identity to the satisfaction of the examining officer’? If so, that will require more than an APP from the College of Policing: it will require parliamentary debate.”

Sampson has recently warned that license plate recognition and mission creep could erode public confidence in surveillance.

The Office for the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner is collaborating with the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) to hold an event in London on 14 June where the use of facial recognition by the police will be put on civil trial. Expert witnesses will speak on the issues and a jury drawn from the public will reach a verdict.

APP welcomed by private sector

Rob Watts, CEO of Corsight AI, a facial recognition specialist, has in turn responded to the Commissioner’s concerns on LFR and praised the College of Policing for its “clear and comprehensive guidance on this challenging issue” reports Police Professional.

Watts believes that the Home Office has been wrongly persuaded that the GDPR covers surveillance regulation. “As we wait for further regulation in the UK, it is important the developers of this technology follow their own ethical frameworks and work closely with their end users to ensure privacy is always front of mind,” says Watts.

“Facial recognition can and should be used as a force for good within society – to save lives and support police forces – but this will only happen if we let it.”

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