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Campaign groups claim police have bypassed Parliament with plans for live facial-recognition tech

Civil society groups call for Parliament to scrutinise the use of live facial-recognition cameras

Civil society groups have called for a ban on the use of live facial-recognition (LFR) technology amid claims that the government and the police are introducing intrusive surveillance measures without parliamentary scrutiny.

Thirty civil society groups – including Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and Liberty – have written an open letter calling for plans to deploy LFR technology by the police and private sector to be put on hold.

The police and the Home Office have “completely bypassed” Parliament over their plans to deploy LFR technology, which could have a chilling effect not just on privacy, but on wider rights, including the right to assemble in public, according to the letter.

“We are concerned that LFR technology may be used in a broad range of public gatherings such as sporting events, music concerts and protests, threatening protected rights,” it said.

The groups said that wider deployment of LFR technology could exacerbate disproportionate policing practices towards minority communities.

The letter follows a public consultation by the College of Policing in May 2021 to develop Authorised Professional Practice (APP) guidelines on how police in England and Wales use live facial-recognition technology.

The surveillance camera commissioner has separately published draft proposed updates to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, which were criticised last week for their lack of detailed guidance on live facial recognition.

The civil society groups claim that police and government and police have failed to adequately address privacy and data protection rights of people subject to surveillance.

The commissioner’s guidelines purport to rectify the issues identified by the Court of Appeal in 2020 when it found that the use of automated facial-recognition technology by South Wales Police was unlawful, they claimed.

The case, brought by Liberty on behalf of Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, found that South Wales Police’s use of the technology was “not in accordance” with his rights under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

The Appeal Court found that the police force did not conduct an appropriate data protection impact assessment and did not comply with its Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) to consider how its policies and practices could be discriminatory.

The civil society groups claim that the proposed College of Police’s APP, which amounts to some 40 pages, falls foul of many of the issues in Bridges’ judgment that led the court to find the use of live facial-recognition technology breached privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws.

“Any claim that the APP implements the decision in Bridges thus falls down not only on its own terms, but by deeply entrenching the problems that the court found made use of LFR technology by South Wales Police unlawful in the first place,” it said.

The guidelines, the groups said, do not preclude the use of LFT for intelligence gathering purposes, which the court said was an “impossibly wide discretion”.

The groups are also concerned that the guidelines allow police forces to use photos obtained from social media and from third parties to identify individuals. Broad categories of people, including victims and witnesses of crime may be added to police watch lists.

Parliamentary scrutiny

The groups said that Parliament should be given the opportunity to scrutinise the use of LFR technology in what amounts to a significant “step change” in policing, adding that the technology “fundamentally alters the relationship and balance of power between citizens and the state”.

In 2019, MPs in the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called for the police use of LFR technology to be suspended until a legislative framework was developed for the technology.

The proposed surveillance commissioner’s guidelines called for chief police offices to publish the categories of people who could be included on a watchlist for LFR and the criteria for deciding where and when to deploy the technology. They require that any biometric data gathered that does not produce an alert on the watchlist is deleted instantaneously.

Police forces should also have regard to the PSED by taking into any potential adverse effect live facial-recognition could have on members of protected groups. They also require an authorisation process for LFR deployments.

The surveillance commissioner is consulting on the guidelines until 8 September.

The College of Policing plans to publish national guidance later this year on the use of LFR technology for police forces in England and Wales.

“Our draft national guidance aims to ensure forces are taking a consistent approach when it comes to the overt use of this technology, ensuring it is necessary and proportionate and is used within a clear legal and ethical framework,” said a spokesperson for the College of Policing.

“We also want to reassure members of the public about how police will use this technology and the safeguards, policies and governance arrangements which police must have in place.”

The surveillance commissioner’s guidelines have one paragraph on LFR. The draft consultation document published by the Royal College of Policing is more extensive at 40 pages.

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