Facial Recognition Technology In The Dock

Michael Drury and Julian Hayes consider the recent High Court judgment in the case of Edward Bridges v The Chief Constable of South Wales Police [2019] EWCH 2341 (Admin).

An insidious threat to privacy or a step-change in police ability to identify and catch known and suspected offenders? Broadly those are the opposing standpoints framing the debate about the increasing use of facial recognition technology ("FRT"), which uses algorithms to compare live images of people's faces with photographs held on a database or "watchlist" to identify individuals "of interest". FRT therefore presents twin issues concerning the collection of data of the "innocent" and the labelling of those of interest.

Claims for the utility of FRT vary from identifying criminals, locating missing children and even informing pub and bar staff who is next in line to be served. However, FRT is still in a juvenile state and studies tend show it is prone to error. Concern has also been expressed at the perceived lack of an adequate regulatory framework governing its deployment in the UK, and the consequent risk that it might be abused and lead to miscarriages of justice. This concern extends beyond NGOs to regulators charged with overseeing the technology's operation.

At the start of September, in judicial review proceedings brought by a former councillor Ed Bridges, represented by campaign group Liberty, for the first time anywhere in the world the courts of England and Wales gave their judgment on the laws governing FRT. The judges' decision is being interpreted by some as a "green light" for further roll-out of the technology.

With interventions in the court proceedings from the Information Commissioner ("ICO") and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Mr Bridges challenged the use of FRT by the South Wales Police in two of the several ongoing trials taking place in England and Wales. He argued that the use of FRT by the police unlawfully and disproportionately interfered with his right to a private life under ECHR; breached data protection legislation; and contravened the anti-discrimination requirement imposed on public authorities by the Equalities Act 2010.

Highlighting the crime-fighting efficacy of the technology during the trials, the judges drew attention to the measures which South Wales Police had taken to alert the public to the experiment. They listed the safeguards which had been put in place, including the automatic deletion of the biometric data of anyone...

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