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UK police infrequently following facial recognition transparency recommendations

Chinese surveillance cameras still widely used
UK police infrequently following facial recognition transparency recommendations

Many police forces in the UK are falling short of the regulatory and ethical obligations they take on when deploying facial recognition. The claims come from the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (OBSCC) Fraser Sampson, who recently published the results of a survey about police use of public surveillance cameras.

The survey report highlights the common use of cameras manufactured by Chinese companies by UK law enforcement. The police survey also shows that just over half of respondents’ forces are operating facial recognition technology (FRT). The most commonly used FRT tool is the Police National Database, followed by retrospective facial recognition and operator-initiated facial recognition.

In terms of compliance, the survey shows that only seven forces can confirm that they operated according to the standards set forth by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. Only two stated they had completed the Commissioner’s self-assessment tool (SAT) for these systems, and only one of those made it publicly available, as recommended by authorities to ensure transparency and accountability.

For those who had not completed the SAT, they said it either was not considered relevant to their FRT or that the technology is nationally recognized (for example, where it is a Home Office system), so an SAT was not needed.

Further, all respondents in the survey said they were aware of the Facing the Camera guidance and reported that engaging the public in the use of FRT is essential.

“Clearly, it is vital sometimes that the police must be able to use intrusive surveillance technology in public places,” Sampson says.

“But if they want the public to trust them to do so, they must be able to persuade us, not only that they are working partners and providers that can be trusted, but also that they will use the technology available to them lawfully, responsibly and according to a set of clear agreed principles.”

Fraser, who has been vocal in the past about the use of Chinese-made surveillance cameras, says that they are embedded throughout the operations of the police and may be difficult to remove or replace without significant effort.

In fact, the recently published Police survey 2022 shows that at least 18 respondents (out of 39) confirmed that their external camera systems used equipment associated with security or ethical concerns (including Dahua, Hikvision, Honeywell and Huawei, and Nuuo).

The numbers were higher for internal camera systems (24 respondents) and lower for ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) technology (11 respondents). Also, 23 of the 31 respondents who said they operate cameras on drones confirmed security or ethical concerns regarding the manufacturer of their drones, the Chinese company DJI.

“It is abundantly clear from this detailed analysis of the survey results that the police estate in the UK is shot through with Chinese surveillance cameras,” Sampson says, commenting on the data. “It is also clear that the forces deploying this equipment are generally aware that there are security and ethical concerns about the companies that supply their kit.”

The comments come weeks after the UK government published its response to a report by Fraser condemning the lack of plans regarding the future of biometric regulations in the UK after the planned abolition of the OBSCC.

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