Legal challenge launched against UK police for use of facial recognition in public spaces

Legal challenge launched against UK police for use of facial recognition in public spaces
A Cardiff resident has launched the first legal challenge to a UK police force’s use of automated facial recognition (AFR) technology. Ed Bridges, represented by human rights organisation Liberty, has written to South Wales Police to demand it immediately ends its ongoing use of AFR technology because it violates the privacy rights of everyone within range of the cameras, and breaches data protection laws.

South Wales Police has used facial recognition in public spaces on at least 20 occasions since May 2017. Surveillance cameras equipped with AFR software scan the faces of passers-by, making unique biometric maps of their faces. These maps are then compared to and matched with other facial images on bespoke police databases.

Bridges' face has likely been mapped and his image stored at least twice. He believes he was scanned as a passer-by on a busy shopping street in Cardiff in the days before Christmas, and then again while peacefully protesting outside the Cardiff Arms Fair in March 2018.

Members of the public scanned by AFR technology have not provided their consent and are often completely unaware it is in use. It is not authorised by any law and the Government has not provided any policies or guidance on it. No independent oversight body regulates its use.

AFR technology scans the faces of all passers-by in real-time. The software measures their biometric facial characteristics, creating unique facial maps in the form of numerical codes. These codes are then compared to those of other images on bespoke databases.

Three UK police forces have used AFR technology in public spaces since June 2015 – South Wales, the Metropolitan Police and Leicestershire Police. South Wales has been at the forefront of its deployment, using the technology in public spaces at least 20 times. South Wales Police has admitted it has used AFR technology to target petty criminals, such as ticket touts and pickpockets outside football matches, but they have also used it on peaceful protesters.

Freedom of Information requests have revealed South Wales Police’s use of AFR technology has resulted in ‘true matches’ with less than nine per cent accuracy – 91 per cent of ‘matches’ were misidentifications of innocent members of the public.

South Wales Police has wrongly identified 2,451 people, 31 of whom were asked to confirm their identities. Only 15 arrests have been linked to the use of AFR.

Images of all passers-by, whether or not they are true matches, are stored by the force for 31 days – potentially without their knowledge.

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