from the excellent-points-that-will-almost-certainly-be-ignored dept
The UK government already has the cameras — thousands of them. So, why not add facial recognition to the mix? A number of UK law enforcement agencies already have. UK police forces compiled a legally-questionable database of 18 million face photos and went to work.
Nobody did well. Failure after failure followed the rollout, with the London Metro police repeatedly claiming the “worst of the worst” title for itself. Despite this resounding lack of success, the Home Office feels the UK needs more failure, not less.
As if further indication was needed of Britain’s slide into a surveillance state, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has backed highly flawed police trials of facial recognition cameras.
Speaking at the launch of tools to be used to combat online child abuse, he said it was right for forces to “be on top of the latest technology”.
“I back the police in looking at technology and trialling it,” he told the BBC. Javid added that “different types of facial recognition technology is being trialled especially by the Met at the moment and I think it’s right they look at that.”
Is it though? Is it “right” to be subjecting UK citizens to faulty hardware and software for the sole reason of… I don’t know… feeling like you’re staying on top of technological developments? Take a look at that last word. The tech is still developing. Right now, it’s abysmal. It may improve, but allowing the construction of massive databases and turning the nation’s residents into lab rats isn’t the answer.
You know who thinks this rollout of facial recognition tech is a bad idea? Awkwardly enough, it’s the UK government. A report [PDF] by the government’s Science and Technology Committee says the tech is faulty, it’s being deployed with virtually no oversight, and the government it reports to refuses to believe there’s a problem.
From the summary of the Committee’s report:
We reiterate our recommendation from our 2018 Report that automatic facial recognition should not be deployed until concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved. We call on the Government to issue a moratorium on the current use of facial recognition technology and no further trials should take place until a legislative framework has been introduced and guidance on trial protocols, and an oversight and evaluation system, has been established.
It’s not like there’s no existing model the government could use to craft its own policies. The Scottish government has already engaged in public consultation and has published an impact assessment on biometric collections and surveillance. The English government has done nothing. It has promised to “review” the tech’s rollout but, to date, hasn’t moved forward with any meaningful examination of the issues raised by the deployment of automatic facial recognition. The Home Office thinks a seven-year-old law — the Protections of Freedoms Act — covers all the bases. The Committee rather harshly sets the record straight:
The Government’s 27-page biometrics strategy was not worth the five-year wait. Arguably it is not a ‘strategy’ at all: it lacks a coherent, forward looking vision and fails to address the legislative vacuum that the Home Office has allowed to emerge around new biometrics. Ultimately, it represents a missed opportunity for the Government to set out a principles-based approach for the use and oversight of second generation biometrics. Simply establishing an oversight board, with no legal powers, is not good enough given the highly intrusive nature of the technologies. Further, the development and use of biometric technologies must be transparent and involve as much public awareness and engagement as possible, to ensure that there is public trust in the technologies. Unfortunately, public engagement has been sorely missing from the Home Office’s approach to date. Its ongoing ‘consultation’ on the governance of biometrics has no published terms of reference and there is no obvious way for interested parties to participate. This is not good enough.
The Home Office continues to believe the nothing it’s doing is good enough. It has repeatedly defended the tech and brushed off the concerns of numerous entities about the lack of legal framework or public discussion, along with its documented failure rate.
To make matters worse, UK law enforcement agencies continue to ignore guidance on retention of facial images it has collected over the past few years. There are now 23 million images sitting in police databases. Those not needed by law enforcement are supposed to be deleted after six years. This isn’t happening. Instead, agencies are acting as though they can hang onto all photos in their databases indefinitely. The Committee says this is not only the government again ignoring its obligations, but this failure possibly violates the law.
Since the Committee published its Report in 2018, progress has stalled on ensuring that the custody images of unconvicted individuals are weeded and deleted. It is unclear whether police forces are unaware of the requirement to review custody images every six years, or if they are simply ‘struggling to comply’. What is clear, however, is that they have not been afforded any earmarked resources to assist with the manual review and weeding process. The Minister previously promised improvements to IT systems that would have facilitated automatic deletion. Such improvements now appear to have been delayed indefinitely. As such, the burden remains on individuals to know that they have the right to request deletion of their image. As we stated in 2018, this approach is unacceptable and we agree with the Biometrics Commissioner that its lawfulness requires further assessment.
The Home Office is onboard with “further assessment.” It just wants to take it as its own leisurely pace and discard any input from citizens or experts it doesn’t like. As long as the government is free to ignore its own advisory committees, it will continue to subject citizens to faulty tech that contains the potential to wrongly deprive them of their freedom.