Facial recognition to be deployed by police across London, sparking human rights concerns

The Independent on the scene as police trial controversial new technology

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 29 June 2018 08:19 BST
Police are trailling controversial facial recognition technology in Stratford

Millions of people face the prospect of being scanned by police facial recognition technology that has sparked human rights concerns.

The controversial software, which officers use to identify suspects, has been found to be “staggeringly inaccurate”, while campaigners have branded its use a violation of privacy.

But Britain’s largest police force is set to expand a trial across six locations in London over the coming months.

Police leaders claimed officers make the decision to act on potential matches with police records and images that do not spark an alert are immediately deleted.

But last month The Independent revealed the Metropolitan Police’s software was returning “false positives” – images of people who were not on a police database – in 98 per cent of alerts.

The technology, which has previously been used at Notting Hill Carnival and Remembrance Sunday services, was used on thousands of shoppers in Stratford, east London.

Scotland Yard said the Stratford operation would be “overt” and that members of the public passing the cameras would be handed leaflets, but The Independent did not observe any information being proactively given out.

The majority of those passing through a line of police officers straddling a bridge appeared not to see posters saying facial recognition technology was being used through the throngs of shoppers.

Sophia Pharaoh said she felt “uncomfortable” knowing the software was in use at the busy intersection, which sits between two shopping centres near Stratford Tube and railway station, adding: “It’s an invasion of privacy and there’s no way around it.”

Maya, a local resident who did not want her surname published, said she understood why police were trialling the new technology amid a nationwide rise in violent crime, but continued: “If they are doing that, people need to be aware of the reasons behind it. People need to understand what’s going on.”

Her boyfriend, Zee, believed facial recognition could make London safer but said: “If they are using it people should know, and they’re not aware. Hopefully it will bring benefits – the last thing we want to hear about is another murder or stabbing.”

Stratford, which was the site of major regeneration projects ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, has suffered a string of violent attacks, fights and robberies mirroring a wider uptick in violence.

In March a 21-year-old man was stabbed to death in the Stratford Centre and in September, another man was knifed during a “mass brawl” at neighbouring Westfield.

Shopper Kinga Denko said she was frightened by acid attacks and stabbings in the area and welcomed the trial of facial recognition, adding: “Police to do something to stop this.”

Footage from two cameras in Stratford were scanned live by the facial recognition software, which flagged up alerts to officers monitoring the system at the scene and deciding whether to detain potential “matches” to 12.5 million images on the Police National Database.

Detective Superintendent Bernie Galopin, the lead on facial recognition for London’s Metropolitan Police, said the operation was targeting wanted suspects to help reduce violent crime and make the area safer.

“It allows us to deal with persons that are wanted by police where traditional methods may have failed,” he told The Independent, after statistics showed police were failing to solve 63 per cent of knife crimes committed against under-25s.

“In this area there are concerns about the level of violence and this is just one of the methods we are using to reduce it.”

Det Supt Galopin said the Met was assessing how effective facial recognition was at tackling different challenges in British policing, which is currently being stretched by budget cuts, falling officer numbers, rising demand and the terror threat.

“There’s opportunity for this to grow but the key is getting the right balance with legal and regulatory issues and people’s rights,” he added. “I think when the public know a lot more about it they will be reassured. We can knit this into the systems we’ve got and it can be a really powerful tool.

“I believe strongly that what we’re doing is right and appropriate.”

The officer said police were currently applying pre-existing legislation, codes of practice and legal principles to facial recognition but said he would welcome “more cohesive” regulation.

Hannah Couchman, an advocacy and policy officer at Liberty who monitored the trial in Stratford, described the technology as “lawless”.

“There’s no dedicated legislation, there’s no guidance, there’s no good practice,” she said. “It’s staggeringly inaccurate and this sort of technology has been shown in America has shown to be actively biased and misidentify women and black people.

“Liberty believes the use of this technology in a public place is not compatible with privacy, and has a chilling effect on society.”

Liberty has threatened legal action against South Wales Police over its facial recognition programme, while campaign group Big Brother Watch is attempting a case against the Met.

The latest trial came as the government announced the creation of a new oversight and advisory board for facial recognition in law enforcement, which could be expanded to ports, airports, custody suites and police mobile devices.

The Home Office’s strategy on biometrics, which also include fingerprints and DNA, said the board would make recommendations on policy changes and oversight arrangements for technology that is currently being purchased ad hoc by police forces.

Baroness Williams of Trafford, a Home Office minister, said: “Biometric data plays a vital role in keeping people safe from crime and terrorism – but we must ensure that privacy is respected. This strategy makes clear that we will grasp the opportunities that technology brings while remaining committed to strengthening safeguards.”

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