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South Wales Police starts facial recognition trial despite opposition

The use of the facial recognition app by South Wales Police marks the latest deployment of controversial facial recognition technology by police forces in the UK

South Wales Police’s decision to start trialing a new facial recognition mobile app has been described by campaigners as “shameful” given the force’s use of the technology is currently subject to ongoing court proceedings.

The application will be rolled out to 50 officers over an initial three-month period, enabling the police to run snapshots of people through a database of suspects called a “watch list”, South Wales police has confirmed.

The idea is that this will allow officers to identify potential suspects in real-time while out on patrol, without needing to return to the station.

As in most UK law enforcement use cases, the automatic facial recognition (AFR) software is being provided by Japanese firm NEC, although the BBC has confirmed that the apps interface has been designed in-house by South Wales Police.

“This new app means that, with a single photo, officers can easily and quickly answer the question of, ‘Are you really the person we are looking for?’” said deputy chief constable Richard Lewis in a press release about the roll-out.

“I want to stress that our police officers will only be using the new technology in instances where it is both necessary and proportionate to do so and always with the end goal of keeping that particular individual, or the wider public, safe.

“We have given additional training to the officers who are part of the trial and will closely monitor the use of the app to assess its effectiveness,” he added.

However, the force’s use of AFR is currently being challenged in court by civil rights group Liberty and its client Ed Bridges, who claims to have been tracked using the technology on two occasions – once during a peaceful anti-arms protest and another while out shopping in Cardiff.

In a statement, Liberty’s policy and campaigns officer Hannah Couchman called the decision by South Wales Police to embark on the trial “shameful,” adding that AFR undermines people’s anonymity, chills their ability to take part in protest and generally increases the state’s control over them.

“Far less intrusive means have been used for decades by police to establish a person’s identity where necessary,” she said.

“It’s a gross abuse of power for South Wales Police to roll out routine, on-the-spot biometric checks, and especially in circumstances where a person isn’t suspected of committing any crime at all. This technology is intrusive, unnecessary, and has no place on our streets.”

In March 2019, both the information and biometrics commissioners told MPs sitting on the science and technology committee that live facial recognition technology should not be deployed by UK law enforcement until concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved.

They also told the committee that the retention of millions of custody images, which are used for the AFR watch lists, would not hold up under another legal challenge.

This is because the Police National Database, which contains some 23 million photos, retains custody images regardless of whether or not the individual was subsequently convicted.

“The use of this technology is both proportionate and legitimate and South Wales Police are required to adhere to rigorous frameworks in terms of data protection, including the General Data Protection Regulation [GPDR],” said police and crime commissioner Alun Michael.

South Wales Police is not alone in having its use of technology challenged in the courts, as the Metropolitan Police is also currently facing legal proceedings over its use of AFR.

Big Brother Watch’s requests also found that South Wales Police’s use of AFR resulted in the force building a biometric database of more than 2,400 innocent people without their knowledge.

Read more about the police’s use of facial recognition technology

  • The first independent report into use of facial recognition technology by the police found a number of shortcomings around trials that would not withstand legal scrutiny.
  • Science and Technology Committee questions legality of the police’s approach to deleting mugshots of innocent people, and says government’s reasons for four-year delay to a new strategy is “less than convincing”.
  • The Metropolitan Police Service has completed its ninth deployment of live facial recognition technology, which took place in Romford town centre on 31 January. Eight people were arrested during the eight-hour deployment, said the Met.

Read more on IT legislation and regulation

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