LIBERTY, Privacy International and 30 organisations have called for Parliament to ban the use of facial recognition technology, one year after judges found the technology breaches civil rights in Liberty’s ground-breaking legal case.
In an open letter coordinated by Privacy International and Liberty published on 21 August, the organisations say police bodies and the Home Office have ‘bypassed’ Parliament in pushing ahead with plans to quietly roll out the surveillance tool.
While the letter calls for Parliament to scrutinise the risks that facial recognition presents, it makes clear that the only way to mitigate these risks is through an outright ban on its use by the police and private companies.
In August 2020, the Court of Appeal agreed with Liberty’s arguments on behalf of Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, finding that South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition had breached human rights and failed to account for its discriminatory impact.
Despite judges finding clearly that the technology violates our rights and threatens our liberties, Parliament has not debated the issue since, and police forces including South Wales and London’s Metropolitan Police have said they plan to use it.
In June, the College of Policing published draft guidance on using facial recognition, and last week the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) published draft guidance on the mass surveillance tool that was supposed to account for the findings in last year’s judgment.
The SCC guidance was widely criticised as ‘bare-bones’ and Liberty said this shows that it is not possible to regulate for a technology that is inherently oppressive.
Liberty is campaigning for a ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public, and has a live petition which has been signed by over 50,000 people.
Emmanuelle Andrews, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty, said: ‘Whatever our background or beliefs, we all want to feel safe and be able to go about our lives freely. Facial recognition undermines these ideals.
‘It is over a year since our case led the Court to agree that this technology violates our rights and threatens our liberties.
‘The government can’t dodge this issue and allow for this dystopian surveillance tool to quietly but fundamentally change the nature of policing and our public spaces.
‘Facial recognition does not make people safer, it will entrench patterns of discrimination and sow division.
‘It is impossible to regulate for the dangers created by a technology that is oppressive by design. The safest, and only, thing to do with facial recognition is to ban it.’
One year ago this month, Liberty client Ed Bridges won the world’s first legal challenge to police use of facial recognition technology.
The Court of Appeal said that South Wales Police’s use of the tech in public breaks human rights, data protection and equality laws. It was unlawful.
A year on, as police forces and private companies continue to use dangerous and discriminatory facial recognition, Liberty is now fighting to get it banned for good.
Still in use
After Liberty’s legal victory, the National Policing Lead for Facial Recognition immediately said he was ‘determined that the future, certainly for South Wales and I know a number of other forces, includes facial recognition.’
The Metropolitan Police then confirmed it would continue to use the tech.
Despite it being well known facial recognition can’t tell black people apart, leading to wrongful stops, searches and – in some cases in the US – arrests, the Met said: ‘We do not believe there are inherent biases that are extreme.’
But how could they know when WebRoots Democracy discovered the Met didn’t carry out an equality impact assessment ahead of the trials that formed the basis of its decision to approve the tech for wider use?
It was also revealed earlier this month that more forces are experimenting with facial recognition on pictures and old footage (rather than live images like South Wales and the Met), while tech companies have plans to put the software on officers’ body cameras, effectively putting everyone in a police line-up.
And it’s not just the police making use of the tech.
Private companies at busy transport hubs and shopping centres are scanning millions of people’s faces without consent, while Southern Co-op is using the surveillance tech on staff and customers.
It must be banned.
Ban facial recognition
New laws regulating the use of facial recognition can’t possibly solve the major human rights concerns.
And making the tech more accurate won’t defeat discrimination.
History tells us surveillance tech will always be disproportionately used on communities of colour, deployed by police forces with a culture of racism.
The only option is to ban police and private company use of facial recognition in areas open to the public.
Liberty stated: ‘More than 50,000 people have already signed our petition. Add your name and share it with your friends and family today. Together we can build a fairer, freer society.’
• ‘Vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines are not solutions – they show the government has failed to protect everyone,’ says Liberty.
The civil rights organisation states: ‘While vaccine passports seem like a solution, they’re actually a by-product of the failings of this government’s entire pandemic response.
‘They look like a panacea, and they’re being presented as such. But they are a serious reinvention of our relationship to the state and potentially to our employers and as such they need serious debate.
‘At the same time, vital support that would enable everyone to be protected – whether that’s an eviction ban or the extension of the uplift to Universal Credit – has been cut.
‘Many of us have been eager to get vaccinated, to protect ourselves, our families and communities, to take part in a programme that may be taking us a step towards post-pandemic life.
‘But taking a coercive approach, would likely entrench the structural barriers to accessing the vaccine with the impact being felt most keenly by some of the very communities who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
‘There are many reasons people may be wary when told they must prove they have participated in government programmes to live their lives.
‘Vaccine passports ignore the concerns of some of the most marginalised and threatens to lock them out of public life …
‘Vaccine mandates for social care staff have caused unnecessary fear and hostility, with staff who raised concerns – many of whom risked their health and well-being on the frontline throughout this pandemic – unfairly positioned as obstinate anti-vaxxers.
‘Many social care staff live in neighbourhoods and communities often on the sharp end of oppressive state practices.
‘Major bodies including the British Medical Association and GMB union have raised concerns about the rights of employees if such a step is taken, not to mention the practical impact of suddenly imposing new punitive restrictions on workplaces for staffing in critical sectors.
‘If you face routine police discrimination, if you or members of your community have suffered from the hostile environment’s web of surveillance that spreads through health care and other services, if you have been subjected to continuous failures in the welfare system, it might cause concern when asked to participate in government programmes that affect your health choices, bodily autonomy and personal privacy.’