British watchdog urges caution over police facial recognition plans

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 January 2020 17:03 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A girl walks past graffiti showing CCTV cameras in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham, central England, October 2, 2010. West Midlands REUTERS/Darren Staples

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Britain's Surveillance Camera Commissioner said it was not clear that the right balance between privacy and security was being struck

By Adela Suliman

LONDON, Jan 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's surveillance watchdog urged the government to set up inspections of police on Tuesday, amid concern over the growing use of facial recognition technology to locate offenders.

The government's Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter said it was not clear that the right balance between privacy and security was being struck, accusing police of acting like "sentinels in the mist".

His comments came days after police in London said they would start using live facial recognition (LFR) cameras to tackle violence in the capital.

"The government should establish an inspection regime ... to generate public trust in the police use of that technology," Porter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, saying that was "absolutely fundamental to the type of society we live in".

Porter, who oversees surveillance camera use by public bodies on the government's behalf said, "the balance between privacy and security hasn't yet been demonstrably met."

Facial recognition cameras have been deployed in other British cities and in some shopping centres, but their use has prompted privacy concerns and opponents have questioned the accuracy of the technology.

Last year, a man took South Wales Police to the High Court, arguing that his human rights had been breached by officers using automated facial recognition without his knowledge when he was shopping.

The court ruled that using the technology was lawful, but civil rights group Liberty is appealing the decision.

Many countries are cautious of the technology and the European Union is considering banning it in public places for up to five years while it works out how to prevent abuses.

In Britain, concerns were raised after it emerged that in 2018, police worked with the private owners of a shopping mall in the northern city of Sheffield that was trialling the use of facial recognition cameras.

British Land, which owns the mall, said on Tuesday it did not plan to use such technology at any of its properties again.

"All personal data processed during the trialling of the facial-recognition technology system was deleted immediately after each trial was completed," the company said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the South Yorkshire Police said the force had "supported" the trial, but did not comment on any future use.

Porter said police use of the technology should be "proportionate" and limited to "serious and organised crime and not simply low-level issues".

Big Brother Watch, a British civil liberties group, said there was a "secret epidemic of facial-recognition".

"The shady deals between police and private landlords in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is alarming," said the group's director Silkie Carlo.

(Reporting by Adela Suliman @Adela_Suliman; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org for more stories.)

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