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UK police fully embrace the potential of facial recognition with £55.5M to spend

Number of arrests grows as forces increase use, but public trust is still a problem
UK police fully embrace the potential of facial recognition with £55.5M to spend

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak today announced a major new investment in facial recognition technology as part of a wider crackdown on retail crime.

“To the shoplifters and those abusing shopworkers, enough is enough,” says a release from the Home Office, which specifies that assaulting a retail worker is to be made a standalone criminal offense.

The £55.5 million (US$69.5 million) to be spent on facial recognition technology over the next four years includes £4m for “bespoke mobile units that can be deployed to high streets across the country with live facial recognition used in crowded areas to identify people wanted by the police – including repeat shoplifters.” Matching real-time live footage with biometric databases and other watchlists, the system will send alerts to police if a banned individual is detected in a high street or retail area via facial recognition.

“The number of offenders being charged for these crimes is increasing and while I want to see more people face consequences for their actions, our plan is designed to help put a stop to these crimes happening in the first place,” says Home Secretary James Cleverly, framing facial recognition as a preventative measure.

Critical response has been immediate, with Big Brother Watch calling it “an abysmal waste of public money on a dangerously authoritarian and inaccurate technology that neither the public nor parliament has ever voted on.”

“It is completely absurd to inflict mass surveillance on the general public under the premise of fighting theft whilst police are failing to even turn up to 40 percent of violent shoplifting incidents,” says a statement from the privacy watchdog group. “The government’s investment in facial recognition cameras for retail offenses relies on shoplifters walking in front of marked police cameras and as such will effectively target the lowest hanging fruit. This Orwellian tech has no place in Britain.”

Metropolitan Police say facial recognition is as important as DNA

Despite such critiques, the investment comes as no surprise, given law enforcement’s embrace of biometrics and facial recognition. In an interview with The Times this week, the Metropolitan Police’s director of ­intelligence, Lindsey Chiswick, calls facial recognition for law enforcement “transformational” and “the biggest development in policing since DNA or fingerprints.”

Besides, the Met already uses a version of the roving facial recognition vehicles, which use live facial recognition cameras mounted on top to perform facial recognition scans and flag any matches against a database of wanted perpetrators.

There is talk of the UK government making an official policy statement on its facial recognition strategy in the coming weeks, and the PM’s announcement makes that all the more plausible. The Times says it will contain “guardrails and safeguards” to assuage public concerns about surveillance and loss of privacy.

Meanwhile, Chiswick insists biometric face matching only targets criminal offenders. “If you’re Dave and you’re on your way to the pub and you’re not on that watch list then your biometric data will be immediately deleted on walking past the camera and you can carry on your way unimpeded to the pub and enjoy your pint,” he says.

Ealing News reports on a statement from police in the West London district of Ealing, where facial recognition is in use, which acknowledges that the biometric tech is controversial. “But if we’re to keep a step ahead,” it says, “we must start using that technology.”

Some areas of London see more than 100 facial scans per minute

To say that facial recognition is the way of the future for law enforcement might be understating the current use-case situation. Analysis by the Times shows that, since the introduction of live facial scanning, it has been deployed 62 times and resulted in 152 arrests – equivalent to just under one arrest every two hours. Only 23 of those arrests happened between 2020 and 2023, showing the dramatic upsurge in use. In the area of Haringey, 133 facial scans are performed every minute.

In the boroughs of Romford and Woolwich, FRT helped police nab offenders for breaching sexual harm prevention orders and other court orders, cruelty to children and aggravated burglary. Other arrests that have resulted from what the Met calls a tool for “precision policing” involve charges of assault, burglary, theft, pickpocketing, fraud, threatening behavior and obstructing a constable.

Chiswick insists police “know the technology is accurate so the chances that the person they stop is the person who is wanted is much, much higher than operating without it.” It has aided in the investigation of serious crimes, and rates of false positives are much lower than anticipated. The Times says “supermarkets are paying police to run its CCTV images of shoplifters through the Police National Database using facial recognition technology.” Officers on the street may soon be able to perform mobile facial recognition with handheld biometric scanners.

However, one of the people that facial recognition has thus far identified for arrest is an eight-month-pregnant woman who was flagged for failing to report her community service – difficult to frame as an example of disciplinary precision, especially with a relatively small sample size. The public’s trust issues with facial recognition are unlikely to abate as long as cases like this continue to come to light, despite what Chiswick calls “a journey recently in order to rebuild trust and confidence in how we police London.”

Regulation key to public trust, widespread uptake of facial recognition

The call for regulation is a big part of public pushback against biometric facial recognition. Answering the call, the Office of the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner, Dr. Brian Plastow, has published its Review of the Laws of Retention of Biometric Data in Scotland. The 37-page document includes key facts, reported numbers for different police force’s biometric databases (although the total number is unknown), definitions, an outline of the Commissioner’s role, and a lengthy assurance review.

One key finding pertains to FRT’s mainstream potential. “Police Scotland has never deployed live facial recognition technology capable of mass public space surveillance in Scotland,” says the review. “However, there are circumstances where the future use of such technology should be available to the Chief Constable as a strategic or tactical option for potential deployment.”

Lingering concerns remain about consent, privacy, and the amount of information both given to those who are arrested and retained by law enforcement agencies. But the Commissioner’s report concludes by arriving at the central issue of public trust. “In 2021, research conducted on behalf of the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner by ScotCen showed high levels of public confidence in the use of biometric data by Police Scotland,” says the report. “However, there is a significant risk that public confidence in the police use of biometric data may be undermined by public statements made in other jurisdictions.” (Plastow has previously wagged his finger at what he believes is an “emerging UK surveillance state”.)

Which is to say, the quickest path to wide public acceptance is probably the slow and steady one, while those who jump the gun risk tripping over the many questions about facial recognition that remain in the public square.

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