Activist loses case against police use of facial recognition

Surveillance still lawful despite interference with privacy rights, court rules in the world's first legal challenge over police use of facial recognition tech

Activist Ed Bridges, who took South Wales Police (SWP), UK, to court over the use of automatic facial recognition (AFR), has lost his case. His crowdfunded appeal was the world’s first legal challenge over police use of facial recognition technology. 

The court went with the police’s claim that the AFR apparatus is placed in public not a form of covert surveillance that would contravene Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which states that "surveillance is covert if, and only if, it is carried out in a manner that is calculated to ensure that persons who are subject to the surveillance are unaware that it is or may be taking place".

"We are satisfied that the steps generally taken by the SWP to deploy surveillance camera systems equipped with AFR in an overt manner are collectively Judgment Approved by the court for handing down R (Bridges) v CCSWP and SSHD sufficient such that that the provisions of RIPA 2000 are not engaged," ruled the judges.

Bridges has appealed against the AFR system, saying he was distressed by police use of the technology after his image was captured during shopping and later while participating in a peaceful protest against the arms trade.

The SWP deployed a single marked AFR-equipped van at Queen Street in Cardiff city centre on 21 December, 2017. Bridges has stated that he did not see signage and was given no other warning indicating that AFR was in use prior to his being in close proximity to AFR-equipped vans.

"South Wales Police has been using facial recognition indiscriminately against thousands of innocent people, without our knowledge or consent. This sinister technology undermines our privacy and I will continue to fight against its unlawful use to ensure our rights are protected and we are free from disproportionate government surveillance," Bridges said in an announcement via Liberty, the civil and human rights organisation that represented him in the case.

"This disappointing judgment does not reflect the very serious threat that facial recognition poses to our rights and freedoms. Facial recognition is a highly intrusive surveillance technology that allows the police to monitor and track us all," Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said in the statement. 

"It is time that the Government recognised the danger this dystopian technology presents to our democratic values and banned its use. Facial recognition has no place on our streets," Goulding added.

GDPR, the present norm when it comes to collection of biometric data including facial recognition details, mandates that organisations have to request the consent from every person scanned and prove that these individuals were fully informed and they were not coerced or lured into giving it.

Article 9(2)(a) of the regulation states that collection and processing of biometrics data including facial recognition is valid when "the data subject has given explicit consent to the processing of personal data".

The use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies is not subject to GDPR. Instead, it is regulated by the Data Protection in Law Enforcement Directive.

"The court today was looking at whether what South Wales Police is doing can be justified on the basis that it is necessary for the performance of an appropriate task," Martin Sloan, partner at Brodies Solicitors, told SC Media UK.

"However, today’s decision is not carte blanche for any use of facial recognition technology by the Police. Each deployment will still need to be considered on its facts and justified," he added.

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