UK government is experimenting with facial recognition on its own citizens

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Our Police have adopted the attitudes of big tech – move fast, break things and worry about the consequences later, if at all.

Recently several pressure groups of highlighted attempts from UK Police to trial live facial recognition (LFR) in public places. Organisations like Privacy International, Liberty and Big Brother Watch have shown shady unmarked vans in central London with mounted cameras filming people without their consent and pushing their images through an algorithm to decide if they look a bit like a criminal.

Unmarked facial recognition van
Unmarked Met. Police van parked in central London during facial recognition trials

What is the legal basis for deploying such technology in a ‘trial’ you might ask? Well, it certainly isn’t legislation which governs the boundaries of its usage. In San Francisco, where many of the tech bro’s who designed this software hang out, facial recognition is banned.

If the Police want to search your home, they need a warrant and be able to justify their suspicion to a judge before it will be issued. If they want to film you and push your image through their criminal database, they don’t need to even ask. There is no oversight to ensure the Police don’t abuse this power.

With this in mind, I wrote to the Home Office via my MP to ask how the Police could justify these trials given the lack of public consultation, discussion or scrutiny and what legal basis these trials have given active consent for personally identifiable information is required under GDPR.

Read the letter below complete with comments or

download reply to from Home Office Minister (554KB PDF).

Daily Telegraph facial recognotion headlne
Daily Telegraph article

Dear Ellie

Thank you for your correspondence of 29 May to the Home Secretary on behalf of your constituent about police trials of facial recognition technology trials. I am replying as the Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service.

The Live Facial Recognition (LFR) is a rapidly improving technology. We recognise that the use of this new technology raises legitimate privacy concerns, which should be debated in a democratic society.

You’re exactly right that’s the whole point of me writing to you – shame it ain’t happening.

We note that the London Policing Ethics Panel report on facial recognition published last month showed that 57% of those sampled supported Metropolitan Police use of facial recognition generally and over 80% supported its use to identify potential terrorists and people wanted for serious violent crimes.

These live facial recognition ‘trials’ around the country started before those surveys results were released so…

The trial deployment referred to in your constituent’s letter was part of the final trials the Metropolitan Police Service carried out in January 2019. We know that LFR trials are intended to commence to find missing and vulnerable persons, which is a collaboration between the Home Office and police forces (Kent and West Midlands; British Transport Police).

I didn’t know this at the time but Hurd has revealed new information here. Nobody knew the police were using facial recognition for finding missing persons with old CCTV footage. I’d thought this was about trialling live facial recognition but this has now become a facial identity scanning system that can be deployed even using historical footage at any time. This throws up all sorts of questions. I would argue it is near impossible to consent to LFR but what if you were filmed without your knowledge and this footage was later fed into the facial recognition software? There is no way you could anticipate this.

The pressure group Liberty press released my letter and it was picked up by the Daily Telegraph who described me as a “privacy campaigner” (requires login) – not sure how I feel about this description. Some other publications like IT Pro and Kent Today. also published details.

telegraph article quote facial recognition
Quote from the Telegraph article

We are not aware of any more police forces planning on trialling LFR but if a police force is considering trialling LFR technology they will put forward proposals to the Law Enforcement Facial Images and New Biometrics Oversight and Advisory Board for their advice. There has been Parliamentary activity regarding LFR such as oral and written Parliamentary Questions, an enquiry by the Science and Technology Committee and a Parliamentary debate on LFR was recently held in Westminster Hall.

Westminster Hall is where debates go when they aren’t considered important enough to be discussed in the Commons. Second division stuff.

Parliamentary questions? Yeah like why is this technology being used when it’s unregulated? By the police. In a democratic country.

Images of passersby being retained to build up a database. Facial images that do not create a ‘match’ are deleted immediately and the CCTV feed is deleted from the system after 31 days. The use of LFR technology by police must be exercised in accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018 and we believe it is.

Reports in the press suggest that facial recognition technology is up to 98% inaccurate. That’s a lot of false-positive ‘matches’ which are presumably retained on the system.

More generally, there is a legal framework for the use of LFR. The police have broad common law powers to prevent and detect crime, which allow them to use surveillance cameras and LFR in public places. These powers must be exercised in accordance with the law, including the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. A judicial review hearing was held in May of South Wales Police’s use of LFR. We will consider that judgement when it is handed down.

Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP

Yes, he did quote the human rights act as a justification for LFR. That happened. There is an ongoing legal case about this in Wales so it will be interesting to see how it develops.

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James Mullarkey

I write about the web and digital, mediocre sporting performances and places I've been, for this blog and only this blog.