Police use of facial recognition breaches human rights law, London court rules

Campaigners challenging the use of facial recognition technology by police in England and Wales have won a landmark legal victory after the Court of Appeal ruled its deployment breached human rights and data protection laws.

In what is the world’s first legal challenge to the use of such technology, the judges ruled on Tuesday that there were “fundamental deficiencies” in the legal framework governing its deployment by South Wales Police, which is the lead police force trialling the technology.

The court found there was no clear guidance on where the technology could be used and too broad a discretion was given to police officers.

The groundbreaking ruling is a major victory for human rights group Liberty and campaigner Ed Bridges who jointly brought the legal action.

Mr Bridges believes his face was scanned by South Wales Police in 2017 and 2018 whilst the force was using automated facial recognition software — which can scan 50 faces per second — and claimed there are currently no proper legal safeguards governing the use of the technology which compares biometric data of individuals to a police watchlist. 

Protesters outside the Cardiff City football ground
Protesters outside the Cardiff City football ground in January © Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The ruling was a “major victory in the fight against discriminatory and oppressive facial recognition,” said Megan Goulding, lawyer for Liberty, who urged the government “to recognise the serious dangers of this intrusive technology”. 

Silkie Carlo, executive director of Big Brother Watch, a civil rights campaign organisation, said it was “a huge step forward in the fight against facial recognition and should deter police from lawlessly rolling out other kinds of oppressive technologies they’ve been looking at”.

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The ruling will have ramifications for future deployment of the technology. But the police insisted it was not a fatal blow and had simply set out much clearer legal parameters to its use.

“There is nothing in the Court of Appeal judgment that fundamentally undermines the use of facial recognition to protect the public,” said Jeremy Vaughan, South Wales Police deputy chief constable, who is the national policing lead for facial recognition.

Matt Jukes, chief constable of South Wales Police said he would give the court’s findings “serious attention,” but added he was “confident this is a judgment that we can work with”.

Tony Porter, the independent Surveillance Camera Commissioner, agreed that the ruling would not stop police forces using facial recognition. “I do not believe the judgment is fatal to the use of this technology, indeed, I believe adoption of new and advancing technologies is an important element of keeping citizens safe.”

Ed Bridges
Ed Bridges jointly brought the legal challenge with human rights group Liberty © PA

Only a handful of police forces in the UK to date have moved beyond the trial stages of facial recognition technology — South Wales Police, London’s Metropolitan police and Leicestershire police.

Last month, the Lincolnshire Police and Crime Commissioner announced that a facial recognition feature would be part of a £250,000 CCTV upgrade in the town of Gainsborough. 

However, there are concerns that Britain will roll out the technology more widely, particularly in London, which has a huge network of 420,000 CCTV cameras and is considered the world’s most monitored city after Beijing. 

Technology groups such as Amazon and Microsoft announced earlier this year that they would at least temporarily stop providing law enforcement agencies with facial recognition tools and last year San Francisco became the first city in the US to ban the use of facial recognition by local authorities.

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