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Simulation of a screen of cctv cameras with facial recognition.

Human rights groups back MPs’ call to halt police use of facial-recognition software

Image credit: Dreamstime

British human rights and technology groups have united with UK MPs in demanding an immediate cessation to the use of facial-recognition technology by UK law enforcement services.

MPs and human-rights technology groups have joined forces to call for police services across the country to cease all use of facial-recognition surveillance activities in public spaces.

British civil liberties campaign think tank Big Brother Watch (BBW) supports the demand. Silkie Carlo, director, said, “No other European country has a face surveillance epidemic like the UK, aligning us with the likes of China rather than our democratic counterparts. The British public do not want to be walking ID cards subjected to a constant police line-up. Tens of millions of people will now have been scanned by facial-recognition cameras in this country, yet very few of us even know about it".

Carlo is concerned with the secret growth of "this dangerous mass surveillance tool" that would be "undemocratic and unacceptable".

"There must be an urgent stop to this privacy disaster before it’s too late,” she said.

The think tank estimated that tens of millions of people have been scanned and compared to “secret watch-lists” by facial-recognition surveillance cameras in the UK without knowing about it.

Conservative MP David Davis was quoted to have said: “Police use of facial recognition is potentially a serious invasion of individual privacy and civil liberties. We need a proper legal framework fit for these emerging technologies to balance policing effectiveness and privacy."

Davis called for an "immediate halt to the use of these systems to give Parliament the chance to debate it properly and establish proper rules for the police to follow.”

According to BBW’s research, the Metropolitan Police has used facial-recognition surveillance 10 times across London since 2016, including twice at Notting Hill Carnival. It also claims that the force used it to identify innocent people thought to have mental health problems at Remembrance Sunday in 2018.

Anna Bacciarelli, technology and human rights adviser at Amnesty International said that facial-recognition systems pose serious threats to human rights, including the rights to privacy, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, association and assembly. "Yet this technology is being used across the UK without adequate oversight and accountability," she said.

“Given the huge risks to human rights, we urgently need a public debate about how and why this technology is being used and who stands to benefit from its use. Until the human rights risks are addressed, facial-recognition systems have no place in our public spaces.”

A report commissioned by government officials, launched earlier this week, stated that emerging technology including facial recognition, while bearing "potential benefits”, needed a proper assessment of the long-term risks and that such rigorous analysis was often missing.

Earlier this month, High Court judges decided that the use by South Wales Police of controversial facial-recognition technology should be deemed lawful. However, human rights advocates, such as Dr. Ed Bridges, a civil liberties campaigner from Cardiff, are already preparing an appeal to the Court's decision. 

Elsewhere in the world, concerns area spreading across the ranks of lawmakers and human rights organisations. In August, lawmakers in California together with the ACLU demanded a ban on facial-recognition technology.

A complete list of politicians, rights, race equality and technology organisations that signed the statement can be found here.

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