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Information commissioner joins warnings over facial recognition


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has added her voice to the warnings about the possible dangers of police forces using facial recognition technology.

Writing in a blogpost on the issue, she says trials have created a potential threat to privacy that should cause widespread concern.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has made the issue a priority and been conducting an investigation into police trials carried out in South Wales and London. Denham says the relevant forces have cooperated and helped to identify legitimate aims for live facial recognition (LFR).

But she expresses concerns, saying there needs to demonstrable evidence that it is necessary to use the technology, and that police forces need to do more to demonstrate their compliance with data protection law. This includes showing how watch lists are compiled and what images are used.

Denham also points to the potential for inherent bias against certain ethnic groups in the algorithms used in LFR.

Three pronged guidance

She highlights three elements of her office’s guidance for police forces, one of which is to produce a bespoke ‘appropriate policy document’ to cover deployments, setting our why, where and how the technology is being used.

The others are the need for a data protection impact assessment, to be updated for each deployment, and to ensure the algorithms do not treat the race or sex of individuals unfairly.

“In recent months we have widened our focus to consider the use of LFR in public spaces by private sector organisations, including where they are partnering with police forces,” Denham says. “We’ll consider taking regulatory action where we find non-compliance with the law.”

The ICO is planning to report fully on its research when a court case on South Wales Police’s use of LFR is concluded.

Denham’s comments come after a new round of criticisms of the police trials. Last month the University of Essex Human Rights Centre published a report claiming there have been significant flaws in how LFR had been tested by the Metropolitan Police and called for all trials to be halted. Also, Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles said the Government should consider new legislation to regulate the use of LFR.

But there have been signs of police officers pushing back against the warnings. The Metropolitan Police has challenged figures on false positive identification rates, and The Times has reported that Ken Marsh, chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, has called for LFR to be used in the way it is in China.

Image from ICO

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