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Biometrics commissioner hints at laws on facial recognition


Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles has said the Government should consider the need for legislation to regulate the use of facial recognition.

It comes in his annual report, which includes a focus on the development of “new biometrics”, most notably facial recognition, and issues around how they have been used by police forces.

It says the development of the new biometrics has raised a number of issues, including the possible need for legislation similar to that governing the use of fingerprints and DNA data.

There are also questions around how the police have run trials of the technology, which has created controversy in cases such as its use at the Notting Hill Carnival in London.

The Home Office has been cautious in its response, noting the point on legislation but saying only that it is developing options to simplify and extend the governance. It says it will update Parliament on the work in the near future.

Earlier this year the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group – the non-departmental advisory body in the field – published an interim report on the ethical principles for the use of facial recognition data. It also noted the lack of legislation and said it is developing a set of ethical principles, while highlighting the scope for errors and bias in how the technology is used.


The report says it is wrong for the police to decide when the benefit from using facial recognition outweighs the “significant intrusion into an individual's privacy”.

Trials were meant to assess the technology before it was used operationally, but the police had gone further by questioning – and in some cases arresting – individuals their cameras spotted.

Both the Metropolitan and South Wales forces have conducted trials at sports matches, music festivals and on city streets, using mobile video cameras linked to software to scan crowds for faces on a watchlist.

“When you are deciding what's in the public interest, you are deciding what kind of world you want to live in,” Wiles says in the report. "That is a rather important decision and if that isn't for government then I don't know what government is for.”

The commissioner warns of more legal challenges unless Parliament provides a clear legal framework for the police use of new biometrics, as it did with DNA and fingerprints.

“There is a risk of wrongful arrest. What people have to remember is that if they're arrested and then checks show it's not them, the arrest stays on the police system,” he says. “If they later need to get clearance, to teach children for example, that arrest will show up.”

Legal case

Last month the campaign group Liberty brought a legal case against South Wales police after a Cardiff resident claimed the force had invaded his privacy by capturing and processing his facial features.

Meanwhile, a Cardiff University review of the trials found that the system flagged up 2,900 possible suspects – but 2,755 were false matches.

Wiles’ report also questions whether there should be clearer rules to regulate inter-governmental access to new databases, and if police forces’ use of analytics that uses machine learning should be regulated in the same way as biometrics.

In addition, it expresses concern over some police forces hanging on to fingerprint and DNA data longer than required.

Image by Sheila Scarborough, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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