Leaders from among civil society, police, academia and regulatory bodies convened at the London School of Economics last week to discuss one of the most contentious subjects in biometrics.
Professor William Webster of the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy at the University of Stirling hosted an event exploring the question ‘Is there a legitimate role for facial recognition in policing and law enforcement?’
Over 200 people registered for the event organized by Webster and the staff of UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Fraser Sampson, which also included speakers from Big Brother Watch, South Wales Police, the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the University of Sheffield.
Notably absent from the discussion were UK lawmakers.
The Biometrics Institute’s Isabelle Moeller and Roger Baldwin presented their organization’s perspective on ethical use of biometric technology, and the resources it has developed. Baldwin differentiated between the biometric verification typical at borders and 1:N identification performed by police during investigations, as well as live and retrospective or forensic facial recognition.
He also delved into differences in the quality of biometric data collected in controlled environments, such as during booking at a police station, or when taking a passport photo, and in the wild, such as in collection of latent fingerprints at crime scenes. The need to “know your algorithm” and test systems with target populations were also introduced.
In response to an audience question, Baldwin suggested that “operator initiated” facial recognition, where a police officer takes a photo of a person to identify them on the spot, seems closer to live than retrospective facial recognition.
South Wales Police are averaging around 100 potential facial recognition matches each month, according to SWP Chief Constable Jeremy Vaughan, who presented the technology as significantly beneficial to the force’s operations. There have been some 70 live facial recognition deployments by SWP so far.
Vaughan also emphasized that police should be held to the highest level of scrutiny in their operations, in order to maintain public trust.
He noted the guidance issued by the previous Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, as well as the College of Policing, on live facial recognition use, based on the guidance provided in the High Court decision.
Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch said that “there probably is” a role of facial recognition in UK policing – but not live facial recognition. Real-time deployments erode privacy, exacerbate biases, and is undemocratic in terms of how it has been adopted, and its impact on people.
The relation between suspicion and surveillance is reversed when law enforcement essentially checks the identity of all people passing by, Carlo argues.
Parliamentary scrutiny has been scant, Carlo says, but what little there is consists of a moratorium recommendation from a committee.
Dr. Joe Purshouse of the University of Sheffield explored the source of legitimacy, and what constitutes the consent of society. Scotland, among other jurisdictions, has done a better job of setting the foundation for appropriate use of facial recognition than the UK, he argues.
One of the only points made from the political realm came from a local council representative, who asked for more resources to help policy-makers understand the issues around facial recognition in all their complexity.
A Home Office representative in the audience spoke bout the government’s attempts to support police use of innovative technologies like facial recognition by building up capacity, such s through the appointment of a chief scientific advisor. Carlo responded that all indications are that most lawmakers do not know what live facial recognition is. The topic has scarcely been mentioned in parliament.
Anne Russell of the ICO reviewed the requirements that data protection laws set out for facial recognition deployments by law enforcement, mostly for live facial recognition, while Forensic Science Regulator Gary Pugh dealt primarily with the role of face matching in the justice system and the powers his office has to apply and enforce rules for police use of forensic technologies.
Interestingly, while Russell said that facial recognition almost always involves the processing of personal information, there are broader societal issues with the technology that are not addressed by data protection law.
Disagreement between regulators and police about what qualifies as proportionate, Purshouse says, shows the need for greater engagement by lawmakers.
It was taken for granted that facial recognition is used differently in court and by police, with standards for the former not applying to the latter.
Expert presenters were not even able to agree, however, on the extent to which facial recognition technology is accurate, with Carlo suggesting false positive rates in Met Police trials close to 90 percent, and another representative of SWP noting no false positives in the force’s most recent deployment.
Presenters also disagreed on whether a deployment of live facial recognition at a protest in 2017 represents a typical deployment by police.
The details of individual deployments of live facial recognition were highlighted, both in terms of successes and ethical breakdowns, at various points in the discussion.
The lack of transparency around the composition of police watchlists was identified by several participants as an area for improvement.
Some of the comments, such as about chilling effects of surveillance, did not make explicit reference to facial recognition, but rather to the presence of cameras themselves.
Forensic facial recognition, while much more commonly used by police, was ultimately discussed relatively little.
In all, it seems that the place of facial recognition in policing in general will likely have to be determined after the details of the most contentious version, just in the UK, are further interrogated, weighed, and decided on. Hopefully lawmakers are prepared to participate in that process.
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