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Former UK Surveillance Commissioner joins Facewatch, concerns raised over appointment

Written by Wed 13 Dec 2023

Former UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Fraser Sampson, has been appointed as a non-executive Director at facial recognition company, Facewatch. 

Sampson’s new role was registered on Companies House records a day after his resignation as Commissioner on 31 October.

“Joining Facewatch was an easy decision to take. They have invited challenge, reviewed practice and policy, and responded promptly to ensure their operations are lawful and ethical,” said Sampson.

Facewatch uses surveillance cameras to scan faces against a watch list. It has already been introduced in high-street shops and supermarkets. 

“Facewatch sought to recruit Professor Sampson to act as a critical friend. His appointment further strengthens our commitment to responsible and lawful facial recognition to prevent crime and people becoming victims of crime,” said Nick Fisher, Chairman at Facewatch.

However, questions were raised into the legitimacy of the appointment.

The Guardian said campaigners were concerned that negotiations on Sampson’s Facewatch contract occurred while the ex-Commissioner was in office. 

Campaigners have urged the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments to investigate whether Sampson’s work in his roles may have been compromised. The Committee is currently reviewing the matter.

“It cannot be acceptable for those in taxpayer-paid oversight roles to negotiate contracts with the very companies they scrutinise while still in post,” said Mark Johnson, Advocacy Manager at Big Brother Watch, a privacy campaigning organisation, to The Guardian.

Johnson added there is no specific law regulating the use of facial recognition surveillance in the UK.

“We cannot have a revolving door between those tasked with scrutinising the use of facial recognition surveillance and those selling it. When the independence of public officials is compromised by private interests, it undermines public trust in our institutions,” said Johnson.

Yet, Sampson publicly stated to the Home Secretary that specific measures were put in place to ensure the avoidance of any potential conflict of interest.

“I am satisfied that no such conflict arose … Having complied fully with my terms of appointment, and having received no conditions or restrictions from the Home Office, I was free to take up the position on 1 November,” said Sampson.

Sampson’s Past With Facewatch

In early 2022, Commissioner Sampson engaged with Facewatch to discuss ethical practices.

In a 2022 speech, Sampson highlighted the importance of remaining vigilant to maintain public trust in State surveillance. He stressed that ‘if you infect one part, you infect the whole’.

“We need to be careful whose corporate company we keep. Lawful, ethical, publicly acceptable surveillance needs a systemic approach … a systemic approach means focusing on the integrity of the surveillance systems and practice as a whole and the standards of everything and everyone in it,” added Sampson. 

In March 2022, Sampson certified Facewatch as compliant with the UK’s Surveillance Camera Code of Practice until March 2024. This certification preceded the approval by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which deemed Facewatch compliant with data protection laws.

In August 2023, Sampson sent a resignation letter to then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. Sampson said the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will merge the Biometrics Commissioner’s functions with those of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. 

Sampson added the Bill will also eliminate the need for the Government to publish rules for surveillance cameras. Changes to the law’s approval timeline meant he would have to continue his post for longer than anticipated. Sampson said he could not do this for personal reasons. 

Facial Recognition and Biometrics Ramps up

Concerns surrounding facial recognition and Sampson’s appointment to Facewatch arrived as European Parliament negotiators agreed on regulations for the AI Act. 

With the new rules, negotiators established exceptions for deploying biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces for law enforcement. These exceptions require prior judicial authorisation and are limited to specific lists of crimes.

In October, UK police were urged to double their use of AI facial recognition technology by May 2024. In a letter to police chiefs, Policing Minister Chris Philp emphasised the need for law enforcement to embrace innovative technologies to prevent and solve crimes as criminal activity evolves.

Philp said it will be possible to exceed 200,000 searches of still images against the Police National Database in early summer if all forces in England and Wales were to work together.

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Written by Wed 13 Dec 2023

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