05:21, May 16 78 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-16 05:21:28
Facial recognition is not just useless. In police hands, it is dangerous

Science fiction is often a precursor to science fact. Some of the best dystopian novels and films are set in a nightmarish world where the state can follow you everywhere you go, as your face flashes up a match on a population-level database.

Now facial recognition is here for real. The police are scanning thousands of our faces – at protests, football matches, music festivals and even Remembrance Day commemorations – and comparing them against secret databases.

The only difference is that in the books and the films it always worked. Yesterday, Big Brother Watch published the results of its investigation into police use of facial recognition software. It revealed that the Met’s technology is 98% inaccurate.

This hasn’t come as a big surprise to us at Liberty. When we were invited to witness the Met’s trial of the technology at Notting Hill carnival last summer, we saw a young woman being matched with a balding man on the police database. Across the Atlantic, the FBI’s facial recognition algorithm regularly misidentifies women and people of colour. This technology heralds a grave risk of injustice by misidentification, and puts each and every one of us in a perpetual police lineup.

Facial recognition exists in a regulatory vacuum. It doesn’t come under the same regulatory framework as camera surveillance and other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA. Parliament hasn’t ever debated it.

And automated facial recognition technology isn’t passive, like CCTV. It loads surveillance cameras with biometric software to create maps of people’s unique facial characteristics in real time. These are then measured and matched to images stored elsewhere.

Although it is talked up as being needed to keep us safe from crime, the database against which thousands of people’s faces were compared at Remembrance Day commemorations at the Cenotaph last November was compiled of people who had shown obsessive behaviour towards particular public figures – none of whom were wanted for arrest, and all of whom were engaging in lawful behaviour.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what can happen when invasive technology exists with no law governing it and no oversight of its use. It’s policing without constraint, not policing by consent.

The police say Tony Porter, the surveillance camera commissioner, is tasked with keeping an eye on them – but he’s not. In fact, the commissioner has just said that Home Office delays in setting out a strategy for facial recognition have left the police to their own devices.

With no legislation, guidance, policy or oversight, facial recognition technology should have no place on our streets. It has chilling implications for our freedom. Every single person who walks by these cameras will have their face – their most identifiable feature – scanned and stored on a police database.

There is no escaping it – especially when you don’t know it’s happening. And if you are one of the unlucky ones who is falsely identified as a match, you might be forced to prove your identity to the police – or be arrested for a crime you didn’t commit.

It’s not hard to imagine the chilling effect its unrestricted use will have. Constant surveillance leads to people self-censoring lawful behaviour. Stealthily, these measures curb our right to protest, speak freely and dissent. They shape our behaviours in ways that corrode the heart of our democratic freedoms.

And even more perniciously, this technology is most dangerous for the people who need it the most. Technology that misidentifies women and people from ethnic minority communities disenfranchises people who already face inequality. If the history of the civil rights movement teaches us anything, it’s that protest can bring about social change. The people most likely to be wronged by the facial recognition technology being rolled out in our public spaces are the people who need public protest the most.

The government’s defence is that the technology is “evolving”. But that doesn’t wash when it is having a real and unjust impact on people in the here and now. There is an increasing pattern of British police “trialling” new tools and tech – such as fingerprint scanning and spit hoods – that suddenly become the norm without so much as a robust assessment of the trial or a public debate.

This must stop now. On Monday the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said that if the Home Office and the police forces do not address her concerns about the use of facial recognition technology, she will consider taking legal action to ensure the public is protected. Liberty will be right behind her.

Martha Spurrier is a British barrister and human rights campaigner and the director of Liberty

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