David Davis MP writes in The Guardian about the threat of live facial recognition to individual privacy
The pernicious growth of the surveillance state continues
with the imminent rollout of live facial recognition cameras across Britain.
That is why this week I signed a statement, alongside a cross-party group of
MPs, experts and civil liberties campaigners, calling for a halt to facial
recognition trials to give parliament the chance to debate it properly.
There is a point at which crime-fighting measures cease to challenge the guilty
and become a threat to the innocent. That point has come with unfettered facial
Over the past few years six forces, including the
Metropolitan police, have trialled facial recognition, with spectacularly poor
results. After surveilling hundreds of thousands of people, the Met has
made a mere handful of arrests using this technology in the past four
years. Indeed, 81% of the “suspects” caught by the cameras were
simply innocent bystanders not on the police’s watchlists. Two of the trials
even had an error rate of 100%.
Similarly, trials by South Wales police had an error
rate of 90%. Clearly the technology does not yet work. As it stands, it is more
likely to deliver a miscarriage of justice than solve a crime.
Imagine taking part in a demonstration on climate change or
Brexit, or enjoying the Notting Hill carnival. You could be surrounded by
cameras sucking in your personal data, then pulled out of the protest and
accused of a crime you did not commit. You would rightly feel failed by an
intrusive justice system.
The consequences can be even more malign. Experts including
the London police ethics panel argue that facial recognition could have a racial
and gender bias. That is certainly what the American experience with this
technology implies. The technology relies on sifting through the biometric
data of thousands of people on criminal databases. But the datasets do not have
enough information on racial minorities or women to be accurate.
Many of these groups already have a deep mistrust of the
police. Being wrongly targeted by a racially biased algorithm will not help this.
And it is not just the state that is involved. An
investigation by Big Brother Watch found that privately owned sites –
including shopping centres, property developers, museums and casinos – have
been using facial recognition, too. A trial in Manchester’s Trafford Centre
scanned more than 15 million faces before ultimately being stopped in its
tracks by the surveillance camera commissioner.
Just last month the Financial Times revealed that the King’s
Cross estate in London was trialling facial recognition. It later emerged
the Met provided much of the biometric data to train the algorithms. With the
UK already the most surveilled nation in the world, facial recognition has the
potential to become an epidemic of intrusiveness.
Sadly, the high court in Wales did not grasp the conflict
with civil liberties, recently ruling that a facial recognition trial by South
Wales police was legal. The court made constant comparisons between facial
recognition and the police’s use of fingerprints and DNA. But they are entirely
different. Officers take fingerprints or DNA samples when they have a
reasonable suspicion of a crime. They do not put a DNA or fingerprint scanner
on the roadside and collect our data en masse.
When the police do scan your fingerprints or take a DNA
sample, they are not simultaneously scooping up the fingerprint data of
millions of other innocent people.
The court cited vague common law principles and legislation
to back up its ruling. But when these laws were written, they did not have
facial recognition or biometric data in mind – the technology did not exist.
The court’s approach leaves the door open to even more
disturbing interferences. Technology is being developed to analyse the way we
walk, our heartbeat, our microbial trace, even the scent we leave behind.
Police forces jump at new technologies, and private
organisations are often just as keen. Once they get their hands on these new
developments, day-to-day individual privacy will be well and truly dead. That
is why parliament must have the chance to debate a new legal framework before
the technology goes any further.
The respected biometrics commissioner has said we need an “informed
public debate to help guide our lawmakers”. Police forces must be clear on when
they can use the technology; what data they can store; how long they can store
it for; and how it is used in investigations and trials.
MPs must have the opportunity to consider the accuracy of
facial recognition and its potential biases. We need a new legal framework to
control these emerging technologies: one that will help police forces tackle
crime, but that also protects individual privacy and Britain’s traditions of
civil liberties and the rule of law.