Information Commissioner considers legal action against users of facial recognition technology

Clay Curtis
May 16, 2018

The UK's Information Commissioner has threatened to take legal action over the use of facial recognition in law enforcement if the police and government can not prove the technology is being deployed legally.

The Home Office has spent £2.6m funding the technology in South Wales alone, according to a report by the group Big Brother Watch (BBW).

Leicestershire Police tested facial recognition in 2015, but is no longer using it at events. "Because of the poor quality, it was identifying people wrongly".

The product used by both police forces is called "NeoFace Watch", made by Japanese firm NEC.

A system of facial recognition software and surveillance cameras used by law enforcement in London has falsely identified innocent people 98 percent of the time, a civil liberties watchdog revealed in a report Tuesday.

"When we first deployed and we were learning how to use it. some of the digital images we used weren't of sufficient quality", said Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis.

"If we move forward on this path, these systems will mistakenly identify innocent people as criminals or terrorists and will be used by unscrupulous governments to silence unwelcome voices".

"This system does not include facial recognition but does capture images and licence plate numbers, enabling our loss prevention staff to identify offenders more easily and get on top of theft". If you think this isn't worth worrying about, bear in mind that on the basis of an incorrect match the police have the power to stop you in the street and require you to identify yourself, in order to prove you aren't the person their computer tells them you are.

"At no time was anybody arrested wrongly, nobody's liberty was taken away from them".

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In London, the Metropolitan Police said there had been 102 false positives, where someone was incorrectly matched to a photo, and only two that were correct. "Faces in the video stream that do not generate an alert are deleted immediately".

Over the past few years, we've seen all sorts of companies claim that artificial intelligence (AI) systems have incredibly high-accuracy, whether it's about facial recognition, content filtering, stopping malware, or what have.

Adding real-time facial recognition to our surveillance state's already worryingly militaristic arsenal would fundamentally change policing in the United Kingdom, and indeed the health of our democracy.

New data protection rules are about to come into force in the United Kingdom, requiring organizations to assess the risks of new technologies, particularly when biometric data is involved, and also to provide a data protection impact assessment to Denham's office in some circumstances.

What does Big Brother Watch want?

While she welcomed both the recent appointment of a member of the NPCC to govern the use of facial recognition in public spaces and the establishment of an oversight panel including herself, Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Denham also noted that she is "deeply concerned about the absence of national level co-ordination in assessing the privacy risks and a comprehensive governance framework to oversee FRT deployment".

National police databases are brimming full of people's images - 19million at the last count - hundreds of thousands of which are of innocent people.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said police had to demonstrate that facial recognition was "effective" that no less intrusive methods were available. "Should my concerns not be addressed I will consider what legal action is needed to ensure the right protections are in place for the public".

The UK home office told the BBC it plans to publish its biometric strategy in June.

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