UK: Successful legal challenge against police use of facial recognition technology

Human rights group Liberty has won a ground-breaking legal challenge in the UK against police use of facial recognition technology.

In a judgment handed down today, the Court of Appeal agreed with Liberty’s submissions, on behalf of Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, 37, and found South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology breaches privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws.

The judgment means the police force leading the use of facial recognition on UK streets must halt its long-running trial.

The court held that there were “fundamental deficiencies” in the legal framework and that Ed Bridges’ rights were breached as a result.

The ruling also states: “The fact remains, however, that SWP have never sought to satisfy themselves, either directly or by way of independent verification, that the software program in this case does not have an unacceptable bias on grounds of race or sex.”

Mr Bridges said: “I’m delighted that the court has agreed that facial recognition clearly threatens our rights.

“This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool. For three years now South Wales Police has been using it against hundreds of thousands of us, without our consent and often without our knowledge. We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance.”

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: “This judgment is a major victory in the fight against discriminatory and oppressive facial recognition.

“The court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties. Facial recognition discriminates against people of colour, and it is absolutely right that the court found that South Wales Police had failed in their duty to investigate and avoid discrimination.

“It is time for the government to recognise the serious dangers of this intrusive technology. Facial recognition is a threat to our freedom – it needs to be banned.”

In September 2019, the High Court found that South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition was not unlawful, but that facial recognition interferes with the privacy rights of everyone scanned by a camera, and 500,000 people may have been scanned (by May 2019) by South Wales Police.

The court found the current legal framework to be adequate, while warning that it would have to be subject to periodic review. Liberty challenged that ruling at the Court of Appeal in June 2020, arguing that it did not fully account for the ways in which the technology breaches our privacy and data protection rights and discriminates against people of colour.

Today, the Court of Appeal overturned the previous ruling, finding that the legal framework relied upon by South Wales Police does not protect privacy rights. The court also found that South Wales Police had failed to adequately take account of the discriminatory impact of facial recognition technology, and had failed to meet its obligations under equality laws.

Finally, today’s decision said that by scanning our faces, the technology processes our unique and sensitive data, and that South Wales Police breached requirements for that processing under data protection legislation.

The Metropolitan Police began regularly using facial recognition earlier this year, despite a review of its own trials finding the technology may be unlawful for similar reasons to those Liberty and Ed Bridges are raising.

Liberty’s petition calling for a ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public has been signed by nearly 50,000 people.

Dan Squires QC and Aidan Wills of Matrix Chambers were instructed by Liberty on behalf of Ed Bridges.

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