There have been calls for government intervention after it was alleged that South Yorkshire Police shared its images of serious offenders with a private landlord, Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, as part of a live facial recognition trial.
The alleged details of the image-sharing for the trial were brought to the attention of the public by the BBC radio programme File on 4, and by privacy group Big Brother Watch.
It has been reported that the Meadowhall shopping centre’s facial recognition trial ran for four weeks between January and March 2018 and that no signs warning visitors that facial recognition was in use were displayed. The owner of Meadowhall shopping centre is reported as saying (last August) that the data from the facial recognition trial was “deleted immediately” after the trial ended. It has also been reported that the police have confirmed that they supported the trial.
The disclosure has prompted some commentators to question not only the ethical and legal perspective of not just holding public facial recognition trials without displaying signs but also of the police allegedly sharing photos of criminals (presumably from their own records) with a private landlord.
The UK Home Office’s Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, however, does appear to support the use of facial recognition or other biometric characteristic recognition systems if their use is “clearly justified and proportionate.”
Other facial recognition trials in shopping centres and public shopping areas have been met with a negative response too. For example, the halting of a trial at the Trafford Centre shopping mall in Manchester in 2018, and with the Kings Cross facial recognition trial (between May 2016 and March 2018) which is still the subject of an ICO investigation.
Meanwhile, and despite a warning from Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, back in November, the Metropolitan Police has announced it will be going ahead with its plans to use live facial recognition cameras on an operational basis for the first time on London’s streets to find suspects wanted for serious or violent crime. Also, it has been reported that South Wales Police will be going ahead in the Spring with a trial of body-worn facial recognition cameras.
Even though many privacy campaigners were hoping that the EC would push for a ban on the use of facial recognition in public spaces for up to five years while new regulations for its use are put in place, Reuters has reported that The European Union has now scrapped any possibility of a ban on facial recognition technology in public spaces.
Meanwhile, Facebook has just announced that it will pay £421m to a group of Facebook users in Illinois, who argued that its facial recognition tool violated the state’s privacy laws.
Most people would accept that facial recognition could be a helpful tool in fighting crime, saving costs, and catching known criminals more quickly and that this would be of benefit to businesses and individuals. The challenge, however, is that despite ICO investigations and calls for caution, and despite problems that the technology is known to have e.g. being inaccurate and showing a bias (being better at identifying white and male faces), not to mention its impact on privacy, the police appear to be pushing ahead with its use anyway. For privacy campaigners and others, this may give the impression that their real concerns (many of which are shared by the ICO) are being pushed aside in an apparent rush to get the technology rolled out. It appears to many that the use of the technology is happening before any of the major problems with it have been resolved and before there has been a proper debate or the introduction of an up-to-date statutory law and code of practice for the technology.