New report raises concerns over Met Police trials of live facial recognition technology

  • Date

    Wed 3 Jul 19

A new report by researchers from the Human Rights, Big Data & Technology Project, based at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre, identifies significant flaws with the way live facial recognition (LFR) technology was trialled in London by the Metropolitan Police Service.

This is the first independently-funded academic report into the use of LFR technology by a UK police force and it raises concerns about the Metropolitan Police’s procedures, practices and human rights compliance during the trials.

The authors of the report, Professor Peter Fussey and Dr Daragh Murray, conclude that it is “highly possible” the Metropolitan Police’s use of LFR to-date would be held unlawful if challenged in court. They have also documented what they believe to be significant operational shortcomings in the trials which could affect the viability of any future use of LFR technology.

In light of their findings Professor Fussey and Dr Murray are calling for all live trials of LFR to be ceased until these concerns are addressed, noting that it is essential that human rights compliance is ensured before deployment, and that there be an appropriate level of public scrutiny and debate on a national level.

After reviewing the report, the Metropolitan Police chose not to exercise its right of reply.

Detailed engagement

Speaking of the report, Professor Fussey said: “This report was based on detailed engagement with the Metropolitan Police’s processes and practices surrounding the use of live facial recognition technology.

“It is appropriate that issues such as those relating to the use of LFR are subject to scrutiny, and the results of that scrutiny made public.

“The Metropolitan Police’s willingness to support this research is welcomed. The report demonstrates a need to reform how certain issues regarding the trialling or incorporation of new technology and policing practices are approached, and underlines the need to effectively incorporate human rights considerations into all stages of the Metropolitan Police’s decision making processes.

“It also highlights a need for meaningful leadership on these issues at a national level.”

Concerns over human rights law compliance

Dr Murray said: “This report raises significant concerns regarding the human rights law compliance of the trials.

“The legal basis for the trials was unclear and is unlikely to satisfy the ‘in accordance with the law’ test established by human rights law.

“It does not appear that an effective effort was made to identify human rights harms or to establish the necessity of LFR.

“Ultimately, the impression is that human rights compliance was not built into the Metropolitan Police’s systems from the outset, and was not an integral part of the process.”

Unprecedented access

In order to compile the report, Professor Fussey and Dr Murray were granted unprecedented access to the final six of the ten trials run by the Metropolitan Police, running from June 2018 to February 2019. They joined officers on location in the LFR control rooms and engaged with officers responding on the ground. They also attended briefing and de-briefing sessions, and planning meetings.

Key issues to address 

The main concerns raised in the report are:

  • It is highly possible that police deployment of LFR technology may be held unlawful if challenged before the courts. This is because there is no explicit legal authorisation for the use of LFR in domestic law, and the researchers argue that the implicit legal authorisation claimed by the Metropolitan Police - coupled with the absence of publicly available, clear online guidance – is unlikely to satisfy the ‘in accordance with the law’ requirement established by human rights law, if challenged in court.
  • There was insufficient pre-test planning and conceptualisation and the Metropolitan Police’s trial methodology focused primarily on the technical aspects of the trials. This meant the research process adopted by the Metropolitan Police gave insufficient attention to addressing the non-technical objectives identified.
  • The Metropolitan Police did not appear to engage effectively with the ‘necessary in a democratic society’ test established by human rights law. LFR was approached in a manner similar to traditional CCTV. This fails to take into account factors such as the intrusive nature of LFR, and the use of biometric processing. As a result, a sufficiently detailed impact assessment was not conducted, making it difficult to engage with the necessity test.
  • The mixing of trials with operational deployments raises a number of issues regarding consent, public legitimacy and trust – particularly when considering differences between an individual’s consent to participate in research and their consent to the use of technology for police operations. For example, from the perspective of research ethics, someone avoiding the cameras is an indication that they are exercising their entitlement not to be part of a particular trial. From a policing perspective, this same behaviour may acquire a different meaning and serve as an indicator of suspicion.
  • There were numerous operational failures including: inconsistencies in the process of officers verifying a match made by the technology; a presumption to intervene; how the Metropolitan Police engaged with individuals; and difficulties in defining and obtaining consent of those affected. 

Further issues highlighted include:

  • Across the six trials that were evaluated, the LFR technology made 42 matches – in only eight of those matches can the report authors say with absolute confidence the technology got it right.
  • Criteria for including people on the ‘watchlist’ were not clearly defined, and there was significant ambiguity over the categories of people the LFR trials intended to identify.
  • There were issues with the accuracy of the ‘watchlist’ and information was often not current. This meant, for example, that people were stopped despite the fact their case had already been addressed.
  • The research methodology document prepared by the Metropolitan Police focuses primarily on the technical aspects of the trials. There does not appear to be a clearly defined research plan that sets out how the test deployments are intended to satisfy the non-technical objectives, such as those relating to the use of LFR as a policing tool. This complicated the trial process and its purpose.

Research team 

Professor Fussey is a leading criminologist specialising in surveillance and society, based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. He is currently leading the new human rights, data and technology strand of the National Surveillance Camera Strategy.

Dr Murray is a specialist in international human rights law, with a focus on conflict, counter-terrorism, and the application of modern technology. He is based in the School of Law at Essex.

Both are members of the Human Rights, Big Data & Technology Project, based at the Human Rights Centre at Essex and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. 

Read the report 

The full report can be found on the Human Rights, Big Technology and Technology project website.