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British civil rights groups are calling on the government to suspend the use of facial recognition technology now being tested by police on the general public, claiming the technology is in a legal vacuum and could impact privacy. But some British law enforcement agencies contend the technology helps them find criminals wanted for serious offenses. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
China's use of facial recognition to identify protesters in Hong Kong and as a police tool on the mainland is growing..
But it is by far not the only country. Companies and authorities are using it more often in the United States as well.
This week, three Democratic members of Congress introduced the "No Biometric Barriers act," which would ban facial recognition software in public housing.
San Francisco banned facial recognition technology use by the city police and other agencies this past may.
The British are also concerned and engaged in a similar debate. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from South Wales.
Families heading for the waterfront at Swansea in south Wales didn't take much notice of a police van parked on the grass. But officers inside were paying extremely close attention to everyone passing by. This was the latest test of controversial facial recognition cameras scanning the crowds to check if anyone matched images of suspects on police wanted lists. The public reaction?
It's a little bit invasive because I wasn't aware of it. So if I'm thinking about it, then it's what makes me feel a little bit awkward.
I think it's fine as long as you've got nothing to hide. No problem with it really. If they're looking for somebody like a terrorist or something like that, it's going to be easier to find them in a crowd.
I think it depends which side of the line of legality that you sit. If you do shady things then obviously you would not want that to happen, but if you sit my side of the legal line, which is the honest side, then I don't think it'll ever be used.
This isn't just about having your image captured in the way that we all do everyday by CCTV.
Ed Bridges, an office worker and former local politician in south Wales, has filed a suit against the region's police challenging facial recognition's legality.
This is about actual unique data that's unique to you and once the state has that I think we should all be worried about how they will control and manage that data.
Bridges sued after he was filmed participating in a demonstration against the arms trade.
It's become pretty apparent that the fundamental issue is that the technology has been developed quicker than the law has been able to keep up with it. At the very least I think what we can expect to see from this is the law being forced to catch up. So, at a minimum, I think that there will be much tougher regulation and much clearer guidance about how facial recognition technology is used.
South Wales Police rejected our requests for an interview but referred us to its youtube channel and statements in support of the technology from the Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis.
As the technology evolves and it is doing so at present at an incredible rate, we need to adapt with it, and the way the police can assure to remain effective at preventing and reducing crime. Facial recognition technology will enable us to search, scan, and monitor images and video, a range of offender databases, leading to faster and more accurate identification of persons of interest allowing us to build a better picture of their movements and whereabouts as well as enabling direct intervention and potentially arrest.
South Wales may be continuing its facial recognition tests, but other forces across the UK have suspended theirs pending the outcome of the lawsuit. In London, the Metropolitan Police have been testing a system made by the Japanese company NEC. But a recent independent study into those tests found that it wrongly identified innocent people as criminals in four out of every five cases.
Professor Pete Fussey:
In ideal conditions, it has proven to be quite effective, the problem is the real world and the world outside is not an ideal condition, lighting changes, people don't look directly at cameras, people look in profile and so on.
The report's co-author, Criminologist Professor Pete Fussey has raised concerns about potential miscarriages of justice.
There's a real mess in terms of the regulatory landscape and that needs to be resolved. The reason for that is it biometrically processes people's data as they pass by, it links it to databases and so on. So because it's more intrusive, therefore you have to have a higher standard of oversight, you have to have a higher standard of authorization.
This is footage of the Metropolitan Police testing the technology during London's annual Notting Hill Carnival. Senior officers said they were disappointed by what they termed the negative and unbalanced tone of Professor Fussey's report. And declared that facial recognition had the potential to help officers locate criminals wanted for serious and violent offences and the exploitation of children. But UK Human rights groups like Liberty believe the technology should be banned.
Facial recognition has no place on our streets. It's feeding in to a wider web of surveillance that the police and the state might use against us and its mass surveillance on an enormous scale. This technology is enormously dangerous to modern democracy.
Hannah Couchman is Liberty's lead Spokeswoman on facial recognition.
it's very difficult to understand what the outer bounds of this technology would be. It poses a real threat to our rights and our ability to live in a society where we feel free to move around and are protected from state power.
What's happened is the privacy lobby has taken the statistics and they've skewed them to create a narrative in the media which is a misleading narrative.
Zak Doffman heads a company, Digital Barriers, specialising in facial recognition.
What isn't up for debate is whether or not the technology works because it does work. It's incredibly accurate. It's significantly more accurate at recognizing people from a large watch list than a human ever could be for example.
Doffman says although facial recognition technology is far superior to standard CCTV cameras, it still needs a helping hand.
If you put poor imagery into a database then that will misidentify against lots of people because the computer can't work it out anymore than if I gave you a grainy black and white photo and asked you to go out in the street and find somebody, you'd be picking out all kinds of people. The computer will do the same thing. So you need to be very clear that the imagery you use in your system against which to recognize people is of high quality and customers, law enforcement agencies, are starting to better understand that now.
Andy Trotter, the former head of Britain's transport police, says officers need all the help they can get to hunt down terrorists.
Human interaction doesn't always work well. The number of people involved in tracking one person could range between 40 to 60 police officers or other operators and then you could be unsuccessful.
This is the immediate aftermath of the June 2017 London Bridge attack in which three Islamists drove a van into pedestrians, then leapt out and began stabbing passers by. Eight people were killed. Andy Trotter says cases like this offer justification for facial recognition.
Here in London we've had the London Bridge attack, the Westminster Bridge attack, we've also had in manchester, the arena attack there with many, many people killed and injured. The suspects involved in that, the people who were guilty of those offenses were often known by the authorities. Had they been in some database, had they been picked up by cameras beforehand, we may have been able to prevent those atrocities and that would definitely be a price worth paying.
Britain's current Conservative government is very keen for the police and security services to add facial recognition technology to their armories. Ministers say they're aware of the concerns and they understand the need for maintaining public confidence and trust and they've given assurances to Parliament that the government is urgently reviewing the legal environment in which facial recognition technology exists.
Despite the government's position, some conservative MPs are calling for police use of all facial recognition to be stopped until Parliament has had a chance to debate the issue and establish some relevant laws. Facial recognition entrepreneur Zak Doffman agrees.
Facial recognition should not be everywhere. It should not be looking for everybody. It shouldn't be used in an ad hoc way in the commercial world. It should be regulated and should be used in control conditions. But when it's used properly, it's a fantastic tool.
The plaintiff suing the South Wales Police begs to differ.
Even in the UK or the U.S., it's not as though you have to look very hard to find examples of police overstepping their brief in terms of how they use data that they might have on citizens. Now they might not do that often and they might not always do it deliberately, but it does happen. And so making sure that there is a robust regulatory regime is something that is in the public's interest and the police's interest so that we can tell when aline has been crossed and we know where the line is.
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Malcolm Brabant is a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.
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