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A landmark ruling?

The news that the High Court has ruled in favour of the South Wales Police, in response to a judicial review brought about by an individual, Ed Bridges, means that the police service there will be allowed to continue to use Automated Facial Recognition (AWR) technology.

The hearing is being described as a landmark decision and a ‘victory for technology innovation’, by Jason Tooley of techUK.

According to Tooley, “South Wales Police has won the world’s first legal challenge over the use of facial recognition. The use of biometrics has been proven to greatly enhance identity verification at scale, as seen in many countries where officers currently use consumer technology to verify suspects on-demand.”

Police services around the world were said to be watching this court action in order to determine whether they would use it themselves – its use is not without controversy.

The potential to use biometrics to improve the quality and efficiency of policing, while cutting costs, is certainly immense. In fact, the UK Home Office is looking to spend £100million on a biometric technology strategy to combat rising crime.

But while biometrics can drive improved policing there remain real doubts about the effectiveness of facial recognition technology and, more importantly, as to how to gain widespread public acceptance.

While the courts ruled in favour of AWR so the property developer at Kings Cross in London said that the technology would not be deployed at the prestigious London site in future, after a backlash against its use following the owner’s admission that the software had been used in its CCTV systems.

The argument about this technology focuses on the ethics of using facial recognition which has been described by those who oppose it as being authoritarian, partly because it captures and analyses images of people without their consent.

The situation at Kings Cross served to highlight a lack of transparency about the technology. Why was it deployed and done so without the public knowing?

According to Tooley the police shouldn’t prematurely focus on one biometric approach.

“Facial recognition, when used as a stand-alone biometric, can suffer from the risk of challenge or refusal to accept, with issues such as gender and racial bias, or scenarios such as poor lighting and wearing accessories impacting on reliability.”

These are serious issues – not easily dismissed.

If this technology is to be accepted people need to understand the value add of this innovative technology and the benefits associated with digital policing.

What Kings Cross has highlighted is that in order for this technology to be accepted not only does it need to mature but, and this is crucial, the use of biometrics must be both transparent and well understood by the people it is supposed to be protecting.

Neil Tyler

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