Face-off in UK court over police use of surveillance technology

Surveillance cameras look over the side of a building in San Francisco, California, on May 15, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A legal challenge against a British police force's use of facial-recognition technology on passers-by in public spaces began on Tuesday in a potential landmark case that could set limits on the increasingly common surveillance method.

Ed Bridges and civil rights group Liberty will argue that South Wales Police is violating citizens' rights by recording their faces without consent or any grounds for suspecting they have committed a crime.

"Facial-recognition technology snatches our biometric data without our knowledge or consent, making a mockery of our right to privacy," said Megan Goulding, a lawyer at Liberty.

"It is discriminatory and takes us another step towards being routinely monitored wherever we go, fundamentally altering our relationship with state powers and changing public spaces.

It belongs to a police state and has no place on our streets." South Wales Police declined to comment on the case.

It has previously said people whose faces are captured but who are not flagged as wanted are not identified by the force and their data is not kept.

The technology uses surveillance cameras equipped with facial-recognition software to scan passers-by in public spaces and uses artificial intelligence to compare them to watch lists of people being sought by police.

If a suspect is identified, they can be stopped on the spot.

Several British forces have joined others around the world in using such devices in recent years, with police arguing it allows smarter policing while rights groups say the level of intrusion cannot be justified.

San Francisco, in the United States, voted to ban the surveillance method earlier this month South Wales Police has used facial recognition during high-profile events, including the final week of the UEFA Champions League football tournament in 2017, said privacy rights group Big Brother Watch.

The technology resulted in just 173 correct matches and 2,297 false positives according to official data obtained through a freedom of information request, it said.

Bridges believes his face was scanned at an anti-arms protest and on a second occasion while doing Christmas shopping.

His legal team will argue live facial recognition violates citizens' rights to privacy, equality laws and data protection laws in the three-day hearing at Cardiff High Court in Wales.

"It's hard to see how the police could possibly justify such a disproportionate use of such an intrusive surveillance tool like this," Bridges said in a statement.

There is no legal framework governing the use of live facial recognition, Liberty said, which argued the technology violates the privacy of everyone in range of cameras.

Concerns facial analysis technology may be more likely to misidentify women and ethnic minorities were also raised in February in a report by an expert advisory body to the government on biometrics and forensics ethics.

A second legal challenge against the use of facial recognition cameras is being brought against the London police force and the Home Office by Big Brother Watch.

"We hope that the legal challenges brought against the police will see the end of live facial recognition in this country for good," Silkie Carlo, a spokesman for the organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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