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Police facial recognition could 'violate human rights', UEA research finds

Police facial recognition technology is being trialled in two police forces. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Police facial recognition technology is being trialled in two police forces. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Facial recognition technology - being trialled by two major police forces in Britain - could violate human rights and is operating in a 'legal vacuum' according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Joe Purshouse. Photo: Joe Purshouse.Joe Purshouse. Photo: Joe Purshouse.

Facial recognition technology (FRT) involves the identification of a person based on an analysis of the geometric features of his or her face, and a comparison between the captured image and one already stored, such as from a custody image or social media account.

The technology was first tested in public gatherings in 2014, when Leicestershire Police trialled a ‘Neoface’ facial recognition system, later using the technology to identify ‘known offenders’ at a music festival with 90,000 concert-goers.

Leicestershire Police and the other two forces trialling FRT – the Metropolitan Police Service and the South Wales Police – argue the technology is lawful and its use in surveillance operations is proportionate.

But researchers from UEA and Monash University in Australia say the technology could violate human rights. They argue there has not been sufficient statistical information about the trials made publicly available for scrutiny. The limited outcomes that have been shared, the researchers say, have shown high false-positive identification rates and a low number of positive matches with ‘known offenders’.

Generic CCTV camera / surveillance. Picture: ANTONY KELLYGeneric CCTV camera / surveillance. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The research, led by Dr Joe Purshouse of the UEA School of Law, and Prof Liz Campbell of Monash University, is published today in the journal Criminal Law Review.

Dr Purshouse, a lecturer in criminal law, said: “These FRT trials have been operating in a legal vacuum. There is currently no legal framework specifically regulating the police use of FRT.

“Parliament should set out rules governing the scope of the power of the police to deploy FRT surveillance in public spaces to ensure consistency across police forces. As it currently stands, police forces trialling FRT are left to come up with divergent, and sometimes troubling, policies and practices for the execution of their FRT operations.”

One concern of the researchers is around the ‘watch list’ databases of facial images from lists of wanted suspects and missing persons, but also other ‘persons of interest’.

Police in Dereham have issued a warning. Picture: NORFOLK POLICEPolice in Dereham have issued a warning. Picture: NORFOLK POLICE

There is no legal prohibition of police forces taking images from the internet or social media accounts to populate the ‘watch lists’.

Dr Purshouse and Prof Campbell say there is a risk that people with old or minor convictions could be targeted by FRT, as well as those with no convictions whose images are retained and used by police after an arrest that did not lead to a conviction.

The accuracy of the technology has been brought into question by the researchers, leading to concerns that some individuals might be disproportionately included on ‘watch lists’.

A disproportionate number of custody images are of black and minority ethnic groups, and as these images are routinely used to populate FRT databases, there is a particular risk that members of the public from black or ethnic minority backgrounds will be mistakenly identified as ‘persons of interest’.

Dr Purshouse said: “There appears to be a credible risk that FRT technology will undermine the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of already over-policed groups.”

The researchers say the use of FRT surveillance is on the rise without sufficient reflection on its aims and consequences, and the ways in which it has the potential to interfere with citizens’ privacy related rights are complex.

Dr Purshouse added: “Rather than gradually becoming a pervasive and chilling feature of public life, FRT surveillance should only be targeted against credible and serious threats to public safety.”

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