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Met Police's first facial recognition deployment in London results in no arrests

Campaigners call controversial technology 'shocking waste of police time and public money'

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 12 February 2020 22:05 GMT
A camera being used during trials at Scotland Yard for the new facial recognition system
A camera being used during trials at Scotland Yard for the new facial recognition system (PA)

The Metropolitan Police’s first official deployment of facial recognition in London has resulted in no arrests and no matches to a list of wanted criminals.

A senior officer called it a “fantastic crime-fighting tool” when the force announced the controversial technology was being brought into use last month.

Critics have questioned its effectiveness, after only eight arrests were made as a result of scanning in three years of trials, and raised human rights concerns.

Scotland Yard launched its first deployment outside Stratford railway station, east London, on Tuesday.

The facial recognition cameras were mounted on a police van in a busy pedestrianised area linking the station with bus stops and two shopping centres.

Campaigners said thousands of passers-by were scanned between 11am and 4.30pm, in what Scotland Yard described as “part of a proactive policing operation to focus on violent and other serious offences”.

Acting Chief Inspector Chris Nixon confirmed that the technology generated no positive matches between the faces scanned and a list of wanted suspects.

He said there were also no false alerts or incorrect identifications made.

“The response from the people I spoke to was overwhelmingly positive,” he added.

“Passers-by were very pleased to see officers out on the ground using a cutting-edge crime-fighting tool, which can help protect them and keep the streets safe.

“My officers worked closely with the technology team to use the technology effectively, and would be keen to deploy it again.”

But campaign group Big Brother Watch, which opposes the technology, said members of the public it spoke to felt “watched and targeted”.

Director Silkie Carlo told The Independent: “A lot of people are worried about crime in the area, but looking around at the huge police presence and wondering why they were essentially standing around and looking at devices for alerts that didn’t come.”

The Metropolitan Police described the deployment as “high-visibility”, “clearly signposted” and said neighbourhood officers handed out leaflets and engaged with the public.

However, human rights monitors claimed that signs warning it was underway could not be easily seen by people entering the crowded scanning zone.

Kit Malthouse says facial recognition will make the search for suspected criminals 'quicker and more effective'

Sian Berry, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, said the placement meant people were caught on facial recognition before they were aware it was happening.

“There isn’t an opportunity to opt out,” she added.

Big Brother Watch, which is part of a legal challenge against the Metropolitan Police over the technology, called it a “shocking waste of police time and public money”.

Ms Carlo added: “It’s hard to understand how this could be considered necessary and proportionate when it clearly isn’t working but is involving a huge amount of surveillance.”

Scotland Yard previously said every deployment would be “bespoke” and target lists of wanted offenders or vulnerable missing people.

Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said facial recognition software “makes no decisions” alone, and works by flagging potential facial matches from live footage to the police database.

Officers then judge whether the person could be the same and decide whether to question them in order to establish their identity.

Mr Ephgrave claimed police had been given a “strong legal mandate” to use facial recognition by a legal challenge that ruled that South Wales Police had used the technology lawfully.

But the landmark case is being appealed and only assessed two specific deployments, and the information commissioner warned that it “should not be seen as a blanket authorisation for police forces to use LFR systems in all circumstances”.

Issuing a legal opinion in October, Elizabeth Denham said: “A high statutory threshold that must be met to justify the use of LFR, and demonstrate accountability, under the UK’s data protection law.”

The Metropolitan Police said it could not give journalists its budget for the technology, after The Independent revealed it spent more than £200,000 on initial trials that resulted in no arrests.

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