Home Office rejects Lords’ calls for South Wales Police to ‘slow down’ use of face recognition technology
A Home Office minister has rebuffed calls by Lords for South Wales and London’s Met Police to “slow down” their use of face recognition technology while more stringent rules on its use are put in place.
Speaking in the House of Lords, the Lord Bishop of Oxford Steven Croft expressed concern that the two police forces were “ramping up” their use of the technology and called for more parliamentary scrutiny.
Susan Williams, Baroness Williams of Trafford, who is the Minister of State for Home Affairs, however responded to suggest that the use of face recognition technology should be expanded.
Lord Croft said that a “range of concerns” had been raised about the use of the technology by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and others.
“Yet, in the face of this, the Met and South Wales Police have both announced a ramping up of the use of Face Recognition Technology,” he said.
“Does the Minister agree that it is time to slow this down and for urgent parliamentary scrutiny and better governance of the police’s use of facial recognition technology?”
Baroness Williams responded: “I do not think we need to slow it down—quite the contrary. It is important that this is done in a clear way: that the police explain why, who and where they are using their deployments.
“That must be explained by the police. I think this has great potential for good, and so I would not agree with the right reverend Prelate.”
They were responding to new guidance published by the College of Policing said that the technology can now be used in police operations to find “people who are missing and potentially at a risk of harm” as well as potential criminals or terrorists.
Civil liberty groups have branded the new guidance as an “atrocious policy and a hammer blow for privacy and liberty”.
Opening the debate, Baroness Williams said that “facial recognition is an important public safety tool that helps the police to identify and eliminate suspects more quickly and accurately.
“The Government welcome the College of Policing’s national guidance, which responds to a recommendation in the Bridges v South Wales Police judgment.”
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones however responded to warn that the UK could be “sleep-walking into a surveillance society”.
“Despite committing to a lawful, ethical approach, the guidance gives carte blanche to the use of live and retrospective facial recognition, potentially allowing innocent victims and witnesses to be swept on to police watch-lists,” he said.
“This is without any legislation or parliamentary or other oversight.”
Lord Strasburger meanwhile warned that the technology was being used by the Chinese Government “to micro-manage the lives of its citizens”.
“Its use here needs strict rules and effective oversight,” he said. “In the absence of legislation, the police have tried to regulate themselves by writing their own rules, but these are so vague that almost anything goes: targeting people who ‘may cause harm’, whatever that means.
“When will the Government do their job and legislate to control the risks of this technology?”
According to the new College of Policing guidance, the technology can be used in police operations to find “people who are missing and potentially at a risk of harm; find people where intelligence suggests that they may pose a threat to themselves or others; and arrest people who are wanted by police or courts”, including terrorists and stalkers whom officers have intelligence on.
It also says that “images that may be deemed appropriate” for inclusion on any watchlist include “a victim of an offence or a person who the police have reasonable grounds to suspect would have information of importance and relevance to progress an investigation, or who is otherwise a close associate of an individual”.
The guidance was issued after the Court of Appeal ruled in 2020 that the use of facial recognition cameras by South Wales Police as part of a pilot scheme breached privacy rights and broke equalities law.
But Silkie Carlo, director of the civil liberties and privacy campaigning organisation Big Brother Watch, put out a statement saying there was a danger of “mission creep with this Orwellian surveillance technology and now we see that this new policy specifically allows innocent people to be put on facial recognition watchlists”.
“This includes victims, potential witnesses, people with mental health problems, or possible friends of any of those people. It is an atrocious policy and a hammer blow to privacy and liberty in our country,” she said.
“Parliament has never debated facial recognition or passed a law allowing it to be used. The public wants police to catch criminals but no one wants dangerously inaccurate tech turning our streets into police line-ups.”
Last month Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price called for the prohibition of police facial recognition technology on the steps on the Senedd, saying that it has an “inbuilt racial bias”.
Policing is not yet devolved to Wales, but Adam Price called on Mark Drakeford to back his call to ban the technology from the steps of the Senedd, where protests are often held.
“According to the UK Government’s own biometrics and forensics ethics group, the lack of representation of ethnic minority faces in the training data on which the technology used by the police is based means it is more likely to identify innocent black people as criminals,” Adam Price said.
“This will exacerbate the racial disproportionality in rates of detention that you, yourself, have acknowledged. In Scotland, the use of this technology is banned for this reason.
“We lack the power to do so currently in Wales, but will you at least support the prohibition of its use on publicly owned land like the Senedd steps?” he asked.
Mark Drakeford however did not say that he supported a ban on the Senedd steps.
“I’m very well aware of the concerns that surround face recognition technology, and I think those concerns deserve to be taken very seriously,” he said.
“I know that my colleague Jane Hutt has had an opportunity to discuss this and allied matters with the lead PCC for Wales, Dafydd Llywelyn, and we will continue to make sure those concerns are properly represented to PCCs, and indeed to chief constables where it’s an operational matter.”
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