Big Brother facial recognition by police challenged in Britain

Wednesday, 13 June 2018 17:42 GMT

Visitors check their phones behind the screen advertising facial recognition software during Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) at the National Convention in Beijing, China April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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Surveillance cameras equipped with automated facial recognition software scan the faces of passersby, making unique biometric maps of their faces

By Astrid Zweynert

LONDON, June 13 (Openly) - A British man on Wednesday threatened a landmark legal challenge against police in Wales for using automated facial recognition technology that he says violated his privacy.

Ed Bridges believes he was scanned by South Wales Police at a peaceful anti-arms protest and while doing Christmas shopping in the Welsh capital of Cardiff.

Surveillance cameras equipped with automated facial recognition software scan the faces of passersby, making unique biometric maps of their faces. The maps are then compared and matched to other facial images on bespoke police databases.

Bridges has written to South Wales Police, demanding the force immediately stops using the technology because he says it violates privacy and breaches data protection laws.

"We should be able to walk around in our cities without the feeling that the state is watching our every move," Bridges told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It doesn't seem right in a democratic society."

He has given the force 14 days to turn it off or risk court.

"It's highly unlikely that they will stop using this technology, so they will have to show in court that their use of it is proportional and reasonable," said Bridges.

Face recognition technology has been used at events from street carnivals to concerts, raising fears of a "Big Brother" society. But this would be the first time that a British police force has faced a legal challenge over its use.


Bridges said the facial recognition technology had been introduced around Cardiff in public spaces and during sports events without warning, explanation or the consent of citizens.

The technology is not governed by any law, the government has not provided guidance and no independent oversight body regulates use, according to human rights advocacy group Liberty.

"Police's creeping rollout of facial recognition into our streets and public spaces is a poisonous cocktail. It shows a disregard for democratic scrutiny, an indifference to discrimination and a rejection of the public's fundamental rights to privacy and free expression," said Corey Stoughton, Liberty's advocacy director.

South Wales Police said it was drawing up a response to Bridges' letter.

"The force has been very cognisant of concerns surrounding privacy and are confident that our approach is lawful and proportionate," the police said in a statement.

South Wales Police has used facial recognition in public spaces on at least 20 occasions since May 2017, Liberty said.

The force said in May it had achieved 2,000 positive matches with the technology and made 450 arrests through its use in the past nine months.

Freedom of Information requests have revealed the South Wales Police's use of the technology has resulted in "true matches" with less than 9 percent accuracy, Liberty said.

Bridges has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a judicial review.

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert , Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.

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