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Facewatch, Met police face lawsuits after facial recognition misidentification

Facewatch, Met police face lawsuits after facial recognition misidentification

Biometric security company Facewatch, which provides facial recognition software to shops across the UK, is facing a lawsuit after its system wrongly flagged a 19-year-old girl as a shoplifter.

The girl, who goes under the name Sara to protect her identity, was shopping at Home Bargains in Manchester in February when staff confronted her and threw her out of the store. In the UK’s first challenge to facial recognition surveillance, Sara is now taking Facewatch and Home Bargains to court with the help of the digital rights group Big Brother Watch.

“I have never stolen in my life and so I was confused, upset and humiliated to be labeled as a criminal in front of a whole shop of people,” she said in a statement.

The organization is also helping mount another legal challenge against London’s Metropolitan Police which was brought by Shaun Thompson, an anti-knife crime community worker from London, the group announced last Friday.

Thirty-eight-year-old Thompson was misidentified by the Metropolitan Police’s facial recognition database and held by officers for almost 30 minutes, threatening to arrest him. Big Brother Watch says that the cases are the “tip of the iceberg” and that more people are seeking help after being falsely accused after being misidentified by live facial recognition.

Facewatch has acknowledged the misidentification. The company, which has hundreds of cameras in retail spaces, has been facing criticism both from civil rights groups and members of the British Parliament. In September 2023, Big Brother accused the UK Home Office of lobbying on behalf of Facewatch during an investigation into the company launched by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

In its investigation, published in March 2023, ICO concluded that Facewatch’s system was permissible under law but also found that the company’s policies had breached data protection legislation on several points.

Facewatch was embroiled in another controversy in December last year after former UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Fraser Sampson was appointed as a non-executive director of the company. The timing sparked suggestions that the watchdog’s head was negotiating with the company while responsible for regulating it.

The Met police have also been facing pushback after ramping up the use of facial recognition to catch suspects. Thompson was identified by one of London’s roving facial recognition vehicles, white vans equipped with cameras on top that scan surrounding faces and flag them against a database of wanted perpetrators. Big Brother has termed the practice a “digital police line-up.”

“Facial recognition is like stop and search on steroids and doesn’t make communities any safer. It needs to be stopped,” Thompson says.

Speaking for the BBC, director of intelligence for the Met Lindsey Chiswick said that the technology’s speed has been extremely helpful, adding that 92 arrests have been made so far this year as a result of it.

“It takes less than a second for the technology to create a biometric image of a person’s face, assess it against the bespoke watchlist and automatically delete it when there is no match,” she says.

The UK government has designated as much as £230 million (US$295 million) on technology for the police, including drones and facial recognition. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also pledged a £55.5 million (US$69.5 million) investment in facial recognition technology to fight retail crime. Last year also saw the launch of Project Pegasus, a £600,000 (US$752,000) police operation supported by British retailers to match CCTV images of shoplifters with those in a national police database.

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