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UK Government Committee calls for Live Facial Recognition legislation

Written by Tue 6 Feb 2024

The Justice and Home Affairs Committee said it is investigating the use of Live Facial Recognition (LFR) by police forces in England and Wales and has called for legislation on the technology.

Baroness Hamwee, the Chair of the Committee, wrote in a letter written to the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, with recommendations for clear standards and regulations to enable the legal deployment of LFR technology. She also emphasised the importance of ensuring consistent training in LFR usage across England and Wales.

LFR compares live camera video feeds of faces against a predetermined watchlist of people to find a potential match. The technology is used by The Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police.

“The Committee accepts that LFR may be a valuable tool for police forces, but we are deeply concerned that its use is being expanded without proper scrutiny and accountability,” said Baroness Hamwee.

LFR Violated Privacy Rights

Baroness Hamwee used the case of civil liberties campaigner, Edward Bridges, as a ‘key legal test’ for the use of the technology. In this case, Bridges brought a claim against South Wales Police for using live facial recognition technology on several grounds, including non-compliance with the public sector equality duty.

In August 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that the South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology violated privacy rights, data protection laws, and equality laws. The police had employed the technology over 60 times since May 2017, potentially obtaining sensitive facial biometric data from 500,000 individuals without their consent.

Baroness Hamwee acknowledged the police force had updated their policies and procedures in the Bridges case. However, she highlighted the judgement focused on a specific aspect related to inequalities.

“In any event, the Government should not wait for the legality of LFR deployment to be tested again in the courts,” said Baroness Hamwee.

In November 2023, Chris Philp MP, the Minister of State for Crime, Policing, and Fire, expressed strong support for using Live Facial Recognition (LFR) technology to prevent and identify crime in crowded public areas.

Baroness Hamwee argued the deployment of ‘probably the largest ever’ LFR during the King’s Coronation in May 2023 brought the technology further into the public consciousness. Notably, the wider use of LFR is being encouraged by the Government. 

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

Common Law Justified for LFR Deployment 

Lindsey Chiswick of the Met Police argued the Bridges judgement found that common law was sufficient as the basis for the deployment of LFR. 

The court expressed worries about fundamental deficiencies in the current legal framework, arguing that too much discretion is given to individual police officers and that there are no clear criteria for deploying LFR.

The concern raised is that the findings in the Bridges case may not provide a clear basis for the use of LFR. Despite current practices, Baroness Hamwee stressed the need for a strong legal basis established through primary legislation of LFR.

Currently, only South Wales and the Met Police have access to the technology. However, South Wales Police have authorised the deployment of the equipment to Northamptonshire Police during the Silverstone Formula 1 weekend and a mutual aid operation to Essex Police.

Temporary Detective Chief Constable of South Wales Police, Mark Travis, said the way the process works is the South Wales Police authorise the deployment of the equipment to another force.

“The force that it goes to then works through its own policy procedure to determine what it has sitting on its watchlist … The local force makes a determination in relation to the necessity and the proportionality of the use of the equipment,” said Travis.

Baroness Hamwee expressed concern about how the use of the technology is being expanded to other police force areas by this process. The Baroness also suggested the adoption of a national compulsory training programme to ensure the consistency of standards for England and Wales.

Calls for LFR Legislation to Build Public Trust

In the letter, Hamwee said there should be legislation, authorised by Parliament for the regulation of the deployment of LFR technology. The Government must also lead a wider public debate about the use of the technology as it develops to ensure public confidence and support.

“We are concerned that the public cannot trust the use of LFR without clarity of the legal basis for its use, a fundamental matter which should be clear before particular deployments are addressed,” said Baroness Hamwee.

Whilst the Met Police and South Wales Police use social media and their website to announce LFR deployments, the Met Police have also admitted the need to better communicate with the public regarding the use of the technology.

The Committee agreed that local engagement about the deployment of LFR is crucial in maintaining public trust in the technology, with public perceptions regularly addressed.

Baroness Hamwee added in future, police forces may be able to link LFR cameras to ‘trawl large populations’, like Greater London.

“There is nothing to regulate this. The public need to be aware of this potential and for there to be an informed scrutiny by Parliament of the risks and benefits,” said Baroness Hamwee.

Baroness Hamwee also expressed concern as to who approves the creation of LFR ‘watchlists’, the lack of ethical oversight of LFR technology, and the need to future-proof the legislation and technological advances with LFR. The Committee has called for a response to each of the conclusions raised in the letter before 26 March 2024.

The letter followed an earlier report titled ‘Technology Rules? The Advent of new technologies in the justice system’ published in March 2022. The Government responded to the report in June 2022, however, the Committee was ‘disheartened’ by the response.

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Written by Tue 6 Feb 2024

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