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UK police minister calls for more live facial recognition

Watchdogs and right groups sound alarm
UK police minister calls for more live facial recognition

As police authorities in the United Kingdom search for more ways to include facial recognition in their work, the country’s privacy watchdogs and rights groups have been raising alarms over surveillance fears and legal issues.

In a letter to police chiefs published on Sunday, the country’s Policing Minister Chris Philp said that the UK police should use live recognition more widely to quickly identify suspects and deter crime.

“AI technology is a powerful tool for good, with huge opportunities to advance policing and cut crime,” says Philp.

The call came after police caught three at-large suspects using live facial recognition technology during last month’s Arsenal vs. Tottenham football match in London, including one wanted for sexual offenses.

Last week, Essex police also arrested three people connected to investigations into rape and robbery after deploying live facial recognition for the first time with the support of South Wales Police. The technology compared live camera feeds of faces against a watchlist of people of interest, returning five alerts.

“This was a really positive first deployment of live facial recognition technology in Essex,” says Detective Superintendent Stephen Jennings in a police announcement. “The deployment was targeted to focus on a specific list of people wanted in connection with high harm offenses, such as violent or sexual offenses.”

Policing Minister Philp also called for doubling the number of searches for offenders using retrospective facial recognition technology by May 2024. By this date, the police in England and Wales could exceed 200,000 facial recognition searches against the Police National Database, he says.

Last week, the UK police authorities and representatives of 13 of the UK’s biggest retailers launched the Retail Crime Action Plan, an initiative to tackle high rates of shoplifting with retrospective facial recognition. Retailers were invited to submit CCTV footage of shoplifting incidents that will be run through the Police National Database using facial recognition.

The anti-shoplifting drive also includes Project Pegasus, an initiative to build a comprehensive intelligence picture of organized crime gangs across the country.

Facial recognition deployment hit with criticism

The moves have been sparking concerns over increasing surveillance of UK citizens as well as warnings about the lack of checks and balances.

A coalition of 14 human rights groups, including Liberty, Amnesty International and Big Brother Watch, has written a letter to retailers backing the UK police plan to combat shoplifting with facial recognition. The group says that the Retail Crime Action Plan could “amplify existing inequalities in the criminal justice system.”

“Facial recognition technology notoriously misidentifies people of color, women and LGBTQ+ people, meaning that already marginalized groups are more likely to be subject to an invasive stop by police, or at increased risk of physical surveillance, monitoring and harassment by workers in your stores,” the letter claims.

The UK police claim that they found no statistically significant differences in the performance based on gender or ethnicity in the settings the police use. The technology was 100 percent accurate when used on still images and only 1 in 6,000 false alerts when used on live images, according to testing of the algorithm the Met and South Wales Police use performed by the National Physical Laboratory.

Shaky legal basis

UK policing authorities are also being hit over unsolved legal issues in facial recognition use.

Fraser Sampson, the UK Home Office’s biometrics and surveillance commissioner, describes the nation’s facial recognition regulatory framework as “inconsistent, incomplete and in some areas incoherent.”

In 2012, the high court ordered the police to destroy photographs of people who were never charged with a crime, including activists. The images, which are now well over 3 million, are yet to be deleted, Sampson told The Guardian.

“So when we’re having conversations about new technologies such as facial recognition, the conversation often comes back to: ‘Why would we trust you to get this bit right? When you’ve still got legacy problems from 10 years ago from other images?’ People want to know with facial recognition: how do they find their way onto a watch list, and how could they get off it? And that’s really important,” says Sampson.

Rights groups such as Big Brother Watch have also warned that police watchlists used by live facial recognition systems may not be reserved just for criminals.

This year’s Formula 1 Aramco British Grand Prix, held in July in Northamptonshire, was the first time live facial recognition was deployed outside of the South Wales and Metropolitan Police areas. Documents, obtained through a freedom of information request, showed that just 234 people out of 790 names on the watchlist maintained by Northamptonshire police were criminal suspects. Big Brother Watch believes that the rest are likely to be protestors, according to The Guardian.

The UK police plan for cracking down on crime has also received criticism for its potential to increase the scope of who can be matched with facial recognition.

This month, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Brian Plastow condemned Minister Philp’s reported plans to integrate facial search capability within the UK’s Police National Database (PND) with the UK Passport Office database. The move would allow the police to use facial recognition to compare images of suspects captured by CCTV cameras against the UK Passport database.

The UK Passport Office holds images of 45 million UK passport holders.

“As Scottish Biometrics Commissioner, I wish to state publicly that I view this egregious proposal as unethical and potentially unlawful,” Plastow wrote in a letter dated October 12.” I also wish to align myself with those who have condemned this proposal as a gross violation of British privacy principles.”

In his letter to police chiefs, Minister Philp says that facial recognition is only used for policing where “necessary and proportionate.” A person’s data is automatically deleted if the system does not match it to the watchlist of suspects.

“Facial recognition, including live facial recognition, has a sound legal basis that has been confirmed by the courts and has already enabled a large number of serious criminals to be caught, including for murder and sexual offenses,” Philp says in the letter.

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