Peer queries live facial technology

by Mark Rowe

UK police forces may soon be able to link Live Facial Recognition (LFR) cameras to trawl large populations, such as Greater London and not just specific localities. 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. So says a letter to the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, by Baroness Hamwee, who chairs the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee.

Briefly put, the Lib Dem peer points to the lack of a foundation in law for the deployment of LFR; lack of ‘clear standards and regulation’; and the need for ‘consistent approaches to training’ in the tech’s use by police.

In more detail, the letter sets out that the Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police have been running trials of such tech for several years: including ‘extensive crowd scanning’ in Oxford Circus and during the King’s Coronation in May 2023. The letter quotes from the Met that it scanned around 300,000 faces with LFR in 2023. South Wales Police’s use started prior to the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff in 2017. The letter notes the Edward Bridges case; the civil liberties campaigner brought a claim against South Wales Police for using live facial recognition technology.

The Court of Appeal in August 2020 ruled that for a number of reasons the South Wales force’s use of the tech was unlawful, as reported in the September 2020 print edition of Professional Security Magazine.

The letter calls for a ‘a firm foundation in primary legislation’ and ‘a legislative framework for the deployment of LFR technology’. While only the South Wales and Met forces have contracted access to the tech (by the biometrics manufacturer NEC Software Solutions), other forces are deploying it by arrangement, such as Northamptonshire Police for the Silverstone Formula 1 weekend.

The peers also are querying what the definition of ‘serious crime’ means in terms of deployment of LFR, noting that it has been including terrorism, and violence against women and girls; and shop theft. As for public trust in the deployments, the letter complains that ways of letting the public know that LFR is to be, and is being, deployed ‘are insufficient. Pre-deployment communication must be standardised through a national, clear and enforceable procedure’.

The letter questions ‘why there is such disparity between the approach of the UK’ and the European Union, given that a proposed EU regulation would mean that police bodies in the EU would require judicial authorisation to use real-time biometric data driven by AI.

Meanwhile, the Italian data privacy regulator has fined the north Italian commune of Trento, for its ‘smart cities’ use of AI in public. That watchdog has today notified breaches of data protection law to OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT’s AI platform.


To recap, who regulates surveillance cameras is up in the air. In December, Tony Eatough replaced Prof Fraser Sampson as Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner. Mr Eatough commented that he was only in place ‘until the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill comes into effect in the spring’, whereby the ‘biometrics casework, including National Security Determinations’, is to  transfer to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, whose new chief executive since December is Richard Thompson, a former Deputy Director in the Home Office.

In the Camera Commissioner’s annual report to Parliament, published last week, Sampson wrote about National Security Determinations (NSD) by senior police for the retention of biometric material, that ‘significant IT issues reported previously by both myself and my predecessors have continued, resulting in occasions where the NSD itself is known by all parties to be inaccurate from its creation and others where it does not accurately reflect the legislative basis on which the biometric material has been gathered and retained’. Sampson commented that it has ‘persisted for far too long and does nothing to secure public trust and confidence in the system’.

More generally he deplored ‘leaden paced legislative change’. While Sampson described himself as ‘a firm advocate for the appropriate use of facial matching and other emerging biometrics by the police and for an overarching accountability framework that keeps pace with that technology, in each case meeting the legitimate expectations of the public’, he complained of ‘a narrow and disconnected focus within the Home Office’.

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