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Civil rights groups call for facial recognition ban

A coalition of civil liberties advocacy groups has demanded a complete ban on the use of live facial recognition technology (LFRT), while accusing the interior ministry and law enforcement officials of bypassing parliament over guidelines on its use.

Thirty-one organizations — including Liberty and Amnesty — accused the government of discreetly issuing guidelines allowing law enforcement, local authorities and other agencies to deploy live facial recognition in England and Wales, despite court rulings against its public use.

The government guidelines were published last week by the College of Policing while parliament is in recess, and with no public announcement by the College or any government agency, according to The Daily Telegraph. The guidelines for using LFRT have been included in the first update of the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice for nearly a decade.

LFRT can be used by law enforcement and security agencies to monitor the faces of passersby in a public area and alert an officer when a person is spotted whose face matches that of a person of interest on a watchlist. The guideline says that when the technology is deployed, the user must follow a number of steps: consider possible harm to protected groups; quickly delete unused collected biometric data; follow an authorization process; and determine and publish the categories of individuals sought on the watch list and the criteria on which the deployment decision is based. Their use must be justified and proportionate.

Last year, three appeals court judges ruled that a public trial of the technology by South Wales police was illegal in a case supported by Liberty. In their view, too much discretion is left to police officers, as there are no clear guidelines about where the technology can be used and who can be added to a watch list.

“In a democratic society, it is imperative that intrusive technologies be effectively controlled,” the coalition of groups said. “The police and the Ministry of the Interior have so far completely bypassed Parliament on the issue of LFRT. We are not aware of any intention to submit LFRT plans to parliamentary consideration, despite the intrusiveness of this technology, its highly controversial use over a number of years and the dangers associated with its use.”

The letter argued that LFRT poses “significant and undeniable risks to our society” and cannot be safely deployed for mass public surveillance under any circumstances. It said LFRT could exacerbate existing unfair policing practices towards minority communities.

The use of the technology represents a change in the relationship between state and individuals, it said: “The implications come not just from a privacy and data protection standpoint, but from the larger ethical issue for a democratic society that prevents the roll-out of such pervasive technology. LFRT also raises significant issues for our human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaign officer at Liberty, commented: “Whatever our background or beliefs, we all want to feel safe and be able to live freely. Facial recognition undermines these ideals. It’s been over a year since our case led the court to agree that this technology violates our rights and threatens our freedoms. The government cannot evade this problem and allow this dystopian surveillance tool to quietly but fundamentally change the nature of policing and our public spaces.

“Face recognition doesn’t make people safer; it will enshrine patterns of discrimination and divide. It is impossible to regulate for the dangers created by a technology that is inherently oppressive. The safest and only thing you can do with facial recognition is ban it.”