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Civil liberties groups call for facial recognition ban

Image credit: DT

A coalition of groups advocating civil liberties has demanded an outright ban on the use of live facial recognition technology (LFRT), while accusing the Home Office and law enforcement of bypassing Parliament over guidance for its use.

Thirty-one organisations – including Liberty and Amnesty – accused the government of having discreetly issued guidance permitting law enforcement, local authorities, and other agencies to deploy live facial recognition in England and Wales, in defiance of court rulings against its public use.

The government guidance was published last week by the College of Policing, while Parliament is in recess, and with no public announcement by the College or any government body, according to The Daily Telegraph. The guidance for use of LFRT is included in the first update to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice for nearly a decade.

LFRT can be used by law-enforcement and security agencies to monitor the faces of passers-by in a public space and alert an officer when an individual is spotted whose face matches that of a person of interest on a watchlist. The guidance says that, when the technology is deployed, the user must follow a series of steps: take into account potential harm to protected groups; quickly delete unused biometric data collected; follow an authorisation process; and set out and publish the categories of people sought on the watchlist and the criteria on which the decision to deploy is based. Its use must be justified and proportionate.

Last year, three Court of Appeal judges ruled a public pilot of the technology by South Wales Police unlawful, in a case supported by Liberty. Their judgement said, as there is no clear guidance on where the technology can be used and who can be added to a watchlist, too much discretion is left to police officers.

“In a democratic society, it is imperative that intrusive technologies are subject to effective scrutiny,” the coalition of groups said. “Police and the Home Office have, so far, completely bypassed Parliament on the matter of LFRT. We are not aware of any intention to subject LFRT plans to parliamentary consideration, despite the intrusiveness of this technology, its highly controversial use over a number of years, and the dangers associated with its use.”

The letter argued that LFRT presents “significant and unmitigable risks to our society” and cannot be deployed safely for mass public surveillance under any circumstances. It said that LFRT could exacerbate existing unfair policing practices towards minority communities.

Use of the technology represents a change in the relationship between state and individuals, it said: “The implications come not solely from privacy and data-protection perspectives, but from the larger ethical question for a democratic society permitting and seemingly condoning the rollout of such intrusive technology. LFRT also raises significant problems for our human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, commented: “Whatever our background or beliefs, we all want to feel safe and be able to go about our lives freely. Facial recognition undermines these ideals. It is over a year since our case led the court to agree that this technology violates our rights and threatens our liberties. The government can’t dodge this issue and allow for this dystopian surveillance tool to quietly but fundamentally change the nature of policing and our public spaces.

“Facial recognition does not make people safer; it will entrench patterns of discrimination and sow division. It is impossible to regulate for the dangers created by a technology that is oppressive by design. The safest, and only, thing to do with facial recognition is to ban it.”

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