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UK police have used PimEyes facial recognition search tool over 2000 times

FOI request reveals unregulated use, but purpose for accessing site remains unclear
UK police have used PimEyes facial recognition search tool over 2000 times

It is becoming an apparent truth that, if the biometrics tools are there, people will use them. News out of the UK underlines this, as Scotland Yard has been forced to impose a ban on use of facial recognition technology from PimEyes by Metropolitan police officers, who records show have already accessed the software thousands of times.

A report from i News says that data released under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules show that the PimEyes site, which is based in Tbilisi, Georgia, was visited from Metropolitan police computers 2,337 times. It is unclear exactly how many of those times constitute a use of facial recognition matching or biometric tools for digital identification purposes.

The only facial recognition tools currently approved for use by the Met are restricted to watchlists and subject to formal approvals. PimEyes’ facial recognition system excludes results from social media and video platforms, but uses AI to map facial proportions and match them with photos of an individual found on any site on the open internet. That means officers using it in the legal gray zone can cast a much wider net with facial recognition searches.

The Met has suggested that the hits may reflect officers doing research on PimEyes, which has already faced several complaints over uses of its facial recognition software. “There are a number of reasons why an officer might research what PimEyes is, particularly in light of the recent press reporting,” it says in a statement.

UK scolding comes in wake of £55.5 million investment in FRT

Giorgi Gobronidze, who owns PimEyes, has made previous statements saying that the onus of ethical responsibility lies with users, who he believes should only be using the tool to search for their own face or for the faces of those who have provided express consent. He has pointed to how the tool has helped women locate and litigate against revenge porn. In a statement to i News, he says PimEyes “is designed solely to locate the sources that publish photographs” and that the firm “does not possess, nor does it utilize, any technology to identify living individuals.”

If that assertion comes off as naive at best, so too does the furrowed brow from UK police, who are set to spend £55.5 million (US$69.5 million) on facial recognition technology over the next four years.

Regardless, in this instance – as is increasingly true across use cases – law enforcement officials are using a biometric tool that is not yet covered by formal regulations. Former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis argues that “the police should only ever use tools that have been properly vetted, tested, and approved for use. PimEyes is none of those.” Digital rights group Big Brother Watch goes even further, suggesting that “the information commissioner should step in to safeguard the British public from these Orwellian facial recognition tools.”

Police in Australia have faced similar criticisms for their own use of PimEyes’ facial recognition engine.

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