UK Police Forces Have Secret Facial Recognition Database Of 18 Million People, Many Innocent

from the false-positives dept

The UK already has a pretty awful reputation when it comes to surveillance, what with millions of CCTV cameras, DRIPA and two recent attempts to shove the Snooper’s Charter through Parliament without scrutiny. So perhaps it should come as no surprise to discover that UK police forces have created a giant facial recognition database that includes hundreds of thousands of innocent people:

Police forces in England and Wales have uploaded up to 18 million “mugshots” to a facial recognition database — despite a court ruling it could be unlawful.

They include photos of people never charged, or others cleared of an offence, and were uploaded without Home Office approval, [the BBC’s] Newsnight has learned.

As BBC News notes, the photos of innocent people have been retained in contempt of an explicit order from the court to remove them:

It comes despite a ruling in 2012, when two people went to the High Court to force the Metropolitan Police to delete their photos from databases.

The judge warned forces should revise their policies in “months, not years”.

Also worrying is this belief in the database’s infallibility:

Andy Ramsay, identification manager at Leicestershire Police, told Newsnight the force now had a database with 100,000 custody photos.

He said searches of the database using facial recognition were 100% reliable in cases where there were clear images, and could be completed in seconds.

No non-trivial matching system is “100% reliable”: there are always false positives that make detection of criminals harder, not easier. There is a danger that the UK police will start using this supposed infallibility as an argument in itself: since our system never makes mistakes, if it says you are guilty, you must be guilty. And there is another important issue, articulated here by David Davis, a former Conservative minister:

“It’s quite understandable, police always want more powers, but I’m afraid the courts and parliament say there are limits,” he said.

“You cannot treat innocent people the same way you treat guilty people.”

What’s worrying is that UK police forces don’t seem to care what the courts say, as they strive to create their video surveillance database that does indeed treat everyone in exactly the same way: as potential criminals until the “100% reliable” system turns them into recognized criminals.

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Comments on “UK Police Forces Have Secret Facial Recognition Database Of 18 Million People, Many Innocent”

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23 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Unsurprising result

If there is absolutely no penalty for ignoring a court order telling them to get rid of the photos, then it’s hardly surprising that the police ignored the judge and kept them. Really, what’s the judge going to do, shake his finger and ‘Tut tut’ a few times?

When judges, in the US, UK, and elsewhere, lack the spine or power to hold those before them accountable for their actions, and assign actual penalties to government and/or ‘public servants’ who are found guilty of something, then while it may be disappointing and disgusting, it’s hardly surprising that they flagrantly ignore what the judges rule like this.

PaulT (profile) says:

“No non-trivial matching system is “100% reliable””

Yeah, that’s the scary thing here. It’s not just the collection of data, but the lack of understanding that no system is perfect and false positives will always happen. Whether biometric data (DNA, fingerprints) or other types of record, neither the collection, storage nor processing of the data can ever be totally reliable. Only a complete fool would think otherwise.

Nothing is more terrifying to my mind than an innocent person dealing with a bureaucracy that cannot accept its own fallibility. Once again, as with 1984 – Brazil was a cautionary tale, not a how-to guide.

Graham Rogers (profile) says:

Re: 100% reliable

PaulT – nice reference to Brazil.

A propos of the reliability, Rob Jenkins (one of the researchers in the corneal reflections project – Dec 2013) is on record with “Studies typically assume that a photograph adequately captures a person’s appearance, and for that reason most studies use just one, or a small number of photos per person. I will describe a number of studies to highlight that photographs are not reliable indicators of facial appearance because they are blind to within-person variability.”

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s ironic that there is a posting about a stupid criminal posting a selfie with his victim immediately followed by a post about a stupid law enforcement action.

Every time I see a story that says criminals are mostly stupid and will be caught through their own actions I am reminded of the fact that the people we task with enforcing the law are generally just as stupid. Worse, many just don’t care in the first place and it’s just a job to them.

They also are under the mistaken belief that they are smarter than both the criminals and those that wrote the laws they are supposed to enforce & follow themselves.

MrTroy (profile) says:

I find it a little surprising that there are “hundreds of thousands of innocent people” in a database of 18 million people in the UK. I mean, have you been there? There couldn’t be more than two, three dozen, tops!

More seriously, you should consider revising the title – the linked article mentions “up to 18 million mugshots”, and I’d suggest that would likely represent far less than 18 million people – it just isn’t feasible that they have “mugshots” of nearly a third of their population. Surveillance photos, on the other hand…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think that a picture of a face in a governmental database can correctly be called a “mugshot” even if that photo came from surveillance cameras.

Here in the US, pretty much everyone who has obtained or renewed their driver’s license after about 2005 has their photo entered into a government database with an eye specifically toward being able to do face recognition searches on them. All of these photos are mugshots.

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