Time to take a step back on police use of facial recognition

We’ve all seen the detective shows on TV. The cops find a CCTV picture of the likely “perp”. The put-upon junior detective is tasked with wading through a database of photos in the hope of finding a match. Meanwhile, the mismatched partners leading the investigation bicker, banter and get shouted at by the chief constable for not solving the case fast enough.

Cop shows would be over a lot quicker if they had facial recognition technology. Imagine that perp shot being matched in an instant, from a database with millions of images? And think what that would mean in real-life, for overworked, understaffed police forces?

So you can understand why facial recognition is such an attractive proposition for forces across the UK. And how easy it could be, for police commissioners and politicians to make the case for how this technology is needed to protect the public. But hang on a minute. Like so many new technologies these days, there’s a dark side.

Last week, privacy experts warned a House of Lords committee that the use of facial recognition technology risks creating “prediction tools about poor people” thanks to “a complete lacuna of regulation and safeguards”. As long ago as July 2019, MPs called for a halt to all trials of automatic facial recognition technology. In July this year, the former UK biometrics commissioner said the “pervasive nature and rapid proliferation” of such technologies needs a “more explicit legal framework”.

Yet forces such as the Metropolitan Police – the UK’s biggest – continue with projects to use facial recognition without sufficient oversight. After a decade of cuts, you can’t really blame them – but the risks are not being balanced with the potential benefits.

The dangers of a creeping surveillance state are clear. It’s one thing using passive CCTV to record potential criminal activity. It’s entirely another to maintain a database of millions of UK citizens against which to compare those images.

There needs to be a moratorium on the use of facial recognition by police forces, and a national debate about its acceptable use.

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