Police Use of Facial Recognition Cameras Is Ruled Unlawful

Campaigners in the UK are calling for the technology to be banned, after a court said police in Wales breached privacy, equality and data laws while trialling the cameras.
Simon Childs
London, United Kingdom
August 11, 2020, 12:08pm
facial recognition cameras
Metropolitan police deploy facial recognition cameras in Romford, Essex on the 31st of January, 2019. Photo: Ian Davidson / Alamy Stock Photo

Police attempts to introduce facial recognition to the UK’s streets took a knock today, as a judge ruled its use by a police force as unlawful. Campaigners are calling for the technology to be banned.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the use of automatic facial recognition technology (AFR) by the South Wales Police breaches privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws.

The South Wales Police has been pioneering the use of facial recognition technology, deploying it on around 50 occasions from May of 2017 to April of 2019 at public events, as part of a Home Office-sponsored trial that has no end date.

The judgment follows a legal challenge brought by Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, 37, supported by civil rights group Liberty. South Wales Police will not be appealing the judgment.

The technology has been criticised as ineffective and discriminatory. Research by Big Brother Watch in 2018 found that, in 95 percent of cases, innocent people were wrongly “matched” to police criminal databases. Big Brother Watch pointed to research showing that this inaccuracy disproportionately affects women and Black people.

The technology has also been used by the Metropolitan Police in London, despite warnings from its own watchdogs and privacy campaigners, at locations including Westfield shopping centre in Stratford and the Notting Hill Carnival.

Ed Bridges was scanned by facial recognition technology on a Cardiff high street in 2017 and at a protest in 2018. He said: “This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool. For three years now, South Wales Police has been using it against hundreds of thousands of us, without our consent and often without our knowledge. We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance.”

A judgment in September of 2019 found that use of the technology was lawful. An appeal was brought, and the Court of Appeal upheld three of the five points that were raised.

The Court decided that using the technology infringed Mr Bridges’ right to privacy, that the “data protection impact assessment” carried out by the police was inadequate, and that the police had failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that the software was not biased on the grounds of race or sex.

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: “This judgment is a major victory in the fight against discriminatory and oppressive facial recognition.

“The Court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties. Facial recognition discriminates against people of colour, and it is absolutely right that the Court found that South Wales Police had failed in their duty to investigate and avoid discrimination.

“It is time for the government to recognise the serious dangers of this intrusive technology. Facial recognition is a threat to our freedom – it needs to be banned.”