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Police go-ahead for facial recognition cameras in London could break the law, government watchdog warns

Biometrics commissioner joins human rights groups and MPs in criticising Metropolitan Police decision

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 25 January 2020 12:06 GMT
Facial recognition trial in London's West End

The looming use of facial recognition cameras across London could fall foul of the law, the government’s own watchdog has warned.

Professor Paul Wiles, the biometrics commissioner, joined human rights groups and some MPs in criticising the announcement by the Metropolitan Police force.

He pointed out that an initial court ruling – clearing the way South Wales Police used the cameras – did not amount to a blank cheque for its widespread use.

And he criticised ministers for dragging their heels on a promise of clear legislation to oversee the fast-expanding use of biometric technologies.

“The new government gave a manifesto commitment to provide a strict legal framework to govern the future police use of biometrics and artificial intelligence,” Professor Wiles pointed out.

The Met is ploughing ahead, despite eight trials it carried out between 2016 and 2018 resulting in a 96 per cent rate of “false positives” and only eight arrests from a facial recognition match.

Two deployments outside the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford saw a 100 per cent failure rate and monitors said a 14-year-old black schoolboy was fingerprinted after being misidentified.

Privacy campaigners have already vowed to launch new legal challenges against the expansion, branding it a “serious threat to civil liberties in the UK”.

Now the commissioner has intervened, questioning the Met’s reliance on a recent High Court judgment in Cardiff on the use of facial recognition by South Wales Police.

“Although the court found South Wales’ use of LFR to be consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and data protection legislation, that judgement was specific to the particular circumstances in which South Wales Police used their LFR system,” Professor Wiles warned.

“The Metropolitan Police will need to pay attention to those circumstances to which the court drew attention.

“It should also be noted that the South Wales decision is now being appealed and that the new government gave a manifesto commitment to provide a strict legal framework to govern the future police use of biometrics and artificial intelligence.”

The Met has described live facial recognition (LFR) as a “fantastic crime-fighting tool”, arguing every deployment will be “bespoke” and target lists of wanted offenders or vulnerable missing people.

“LFR is only bringing technology to bear on a policing activity that has been going on since policing began. We brief officers showing them photographs of wanted people, asking them to memorise that photograph and see if they can spot that person on patrol.

“What LFR does for us is make that process more efficient and effective.”

Any “alerts” will be kept for one month, while watchlists will be wiped immediately after each operation.

The system can support lists of up to 10,000 wanted people, but police said they will be targeting specific groups in set areas because of “lawfulness and proportionality”.

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