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Live facial recognition law and regulatory framework needed: UK committee

Live facial recognition law and regulatory framework needed: UK committee

The legal basis for police deployments of live facial recognition is being questioned by the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the UK House of Lords.

A letter from the committee to Home Secretary James Cleverly calls for the public to be made aware of the potential for police forces to use live facial recognition surveillance over wide areas and large populations, and for scrutiny of the lack of regulation by Parliament.

The JHAC wrote to the government in March, 2022 with findings and recommendations from its investigation into police use of real-time facial recognition, highlighting a lack of strategy, transparency and accountability. The government rejected the majority of its findings, including the call for a national oversight body.

The committee wrote back that it was “disheartened” by the government’s response.

The Committee also held hearings with police and academics in December, hearing that the technology meets accuracy expectations and is getting better, but a legislative framework is needed to provide police with clarity.

The Committee notes in the letter that the public’s awareness of the technology increased with its use during the coronation of King Charles, which may have been the largest ever in Europe. Policing Minister Chris Philp has encouraged more deployments of live facial recognition in a letter to police chiefs late last year.

Philp says in the letter that live facial recognition has “a sound legal basis,” but the Committee warns that “the Government should not wait for the legality of LFR deployment to be tested again in the courts.”

Comprehensive recommendations

Eleven of the 14 pages of the letter to Cleverly are made up of conclusions and recommendations. The Committee reviews the use of live facial recognition by Met and South Wales Police, and the arguments that have been made about whether its legal basis is sufficient. This review notes with some scepticism that police have stated the Bridges judgement accepts common law as a sufficient legal basis for the technology’s use, and that Met Police have also cited the College of Policing’s Authorised Professional Practice as supporting its deployments.

“We note that, in contrast to the evidence we have received from the police, the Court of Appeal in the Bridges judgment expressed concerns about the ‘fundamental deficiencies’ in the current legal framework arguing that ‘too much discretion is currently left to individual police officers’ and that it is not ‘clear that there are any criteria for determining where AFR can be deployed,’” Committee members write.

They invite the government to defend its claims that a sound legal basis exists. The Committee also asks for clarification on how the technology may be used by other police forces, recommends a national training program, and seeks a clear definition of “serious crime” as a measure of necessity and proportionality.

The Committee wants watchlists to be compiled based on specific criteria, and “insufficient” public notice to be upgraded.  Institutional safeguards and independent scrutiny should be introduced, in particular to provide transparency around biometric algorithms without divulging trade secrets.

Registration of algorithms in the Algorithmic Transparency Recording Standard (ATRS) should be mandatory.

Finally, the UK should consider why it is departing from the norms being established in other democratic countries, and bring regulation up to speed with technology’s advances.

The latest changes to government oversight and regulation of biometrics, however, show a “lack of interest in proper regulation” according to the recently-departed Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

The letter also notes that Committee Chair Baroness Hamwee and other members will reach the end of their term and be replaced soon.

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