Ministers are urging the inclusion of facial recognition technology (LFR) in routine law enforcement activities.
This big change signals a divergence from the police in England and Wales's sparse usage of LFR. It has mostly only been used for special assignments, including high-profile events or sporting events.
Body-worn video cameras were initially developed to record encounters between police officers and members of the public as well as to gather evidence. Currently, these little devices can record high-definition video, and it is technically possible for them to be connected to real-time facial recognition systems.
LFR includes comparing a database of watchlists with the biometric information on people's faces.
But the use of LFR has long been controversial, and its use by UK police forces has previously been found to be unlawful.
What is live facial recognition and how does it work?
Live facial recognition technology works by using cameras to scan the faces of people in a specific area.
Their images are then streamed to a LFR system which contains a database of people the police are looking for.
This “watchlist” includes offenders, people wanted by the police or the courts, or people who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.
The Met says “LFR is not a ubiquitous tool that uses lots of CCTV cameras from across London to track every person’s movements. It is a carefully deployed overt policing tactic to help locate a limited number of people the police need to find in order to keep London safe.”
London’s police force most recently used LFR for the King’s coronation, watching out for people in the crowds at locations like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Mile “in order to keep people safe”.
Why is facial recognition controversial?
The use of facial recognition technology is considered to be controversial for a number of reasons.
One criticism is that thousands of people’s biometric data is captured without their consent. The images used to create the watchlists can also come from anywhere, taken without the individual’s consent.
Additionally, the police have been using LFR in public without parliamentary debate and the public has not been given an opportunity to vote on its use.
Furthermore, people have been misidentified, and subsequently wrongly stopped and searched, and the technology has also found to be discriminatory, with Black people more likely to be misidentified.
In an article for Harvard University, Alex Najibi wrote that “a growing body of research exposes divergent error rates across demographic groups, with the poorest accuracy consistently found in subjects who are female, Black, and 18-30 years old.”
The 2018 “Gender Shades” found that three algorithms performed the worst on darker-skinned females, with error rates up to 34% higher than for lighter-skinned males.
What have the courts and civil liberties groups said about facial recognition?
In August 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that a UK police force’s use of facial recognition technology infringed on privacy and data protection laws. South Wales Police use of facial recognition was found to be discriminatory, after lawyers argued it interferes with privacy and data protection laws and is potentially discriminatory.
In June 2021, the Information Commissioner expressed concern about the potential misuse of live facial recognition in public places, and warned that “supercharged CCTV” could be used “inappropriately, excessively or even recklessly”.
In August 2021, a group of civil society bodies urged the Government to ban facial recognition cameras. They also accused the police Home Office of bypassing Parliament over guidance for the use of the technology.
“In a democratic society, it is imperative that intrusive technologies are subject to effective scrutiny,” the letter said.
In October 2021, the European Parliament called for a ban on police use of facial recognition technology in public places, as well as a ban on private facial recognition databases.
Campaigners also worry that police may employ face-scanning technology on protesters.