The Expansion of Facial Recognition Technology in UK Policing


The increasing use of facial recognition technology by UK police forces has raised significant concerns among privacy advocates, academics, and lawmakers. While authorities claim the technology aids in identifying criminals and missing persons, critics argue it is a breach of privacy and human rights. This article profoundly explores these concerns and calls for a more regulated approach to this rapidly advancing technology.

From Beyoncé concerts to the British Formula One Grand Prix, thousands of individuals have had their faces scanned by police-operated facial recognition technology this year alone. Backed by the Conservative government, police forces across England and Wales are encouraged to double their use of this controversial tool.

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to; it’s an absolute prerequisite.” – Marlon Brando.

Rapid Expansion Amidst Diminishing Trust

The rapid expansion of facial recognition technology comes at a time when trust in security and policing levels is at record lows following a series of high-profile scandals. Civil liberties groups, experts, and some lawmakers have called for bans on face recognition technology, particularly in public places, saying it infringes on people’s privacy and human rights and isn’t a “proportionate” way to find people suspected of committing crimes.

Types of Facial Recognition Systems in Use

There are two primary kinds of facial recognition systems employed by UK police. The first is live face recognition systems (LFR), which include cameras mounted on police vehicles scanning the faces of passersby against a “watchlist” of wanted individuals. The second is retrospective face recognition (RFR), where images from CCTV, smartphones, and doorbell cameras are fed into a system that attempts to identify individuals based on millions of existing photos.

Concerns Over Accuracy and Bias

Researchers and academics have long shown face recognition technologies to be biased or less accurate for people of color, particularly Black people. Despite this, the data published by the police forces show their LFR systems, set to an accuracy threshold of either 0.6 or 0.64, have had no false alerts or misidentifications this year. Critics argue that setting these thresholds may reduce incorrect matches but also reduce the system’s overall effectiveness.

Government Support Amidst Calls for Regulation

The Home Office, the government department responsible for policing in England and Wales, has expressed its commitment to providing police with the necessary technology. They argue that facial recognition helps police quickly and accurately identify those wanted for serious crimes, as well as missing or vulnerable people, thus freeing up police time and resources. However, privacy advocates and experts argue that the use of such invasive technology needs to be regulated and its legal basis clarified.

Call for Legal Clarity and Oversight

Several reports, including those from the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge, have highlighted the legal uncertainty surrounding using LFR and called for minimum ethical and legal standards. They argue that while the use of technology to keep the public safe is legitimate, the legal basis for the benefit of facial recognition technology isn’t clear, and there’s no external oversight of how it’s used, how it’s authorized, and who’s on the watchlist.

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