Essex expertise informs facial recognition decision

  • Date

    Wed 9 Sep 20

The expertise and leading-edge research of three Essex academics has informed a landmark judgment on police use of facial recognition.

On Tuesday 11 August, the Court of Appeal delivered its judgement in a case brought by civil liberties campaigner Ed Bridges and the campaigning organisation Liberty, challenging a previous decision in favour of South Wales Police.

Mr Bridges, who lives in Cardiff, argued that it was possible South Wales Police had captured an image of his face on two occasions, as a result of facial recognition technology being deployed.

He brought a claim for judicial review, arguing that South Wales Police’s approach to deployment was incompatible with the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, data protection legislation, and the Public Sector Equality Duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.

Professor Pete Fussey, from the Department of Sociology and Professor Lorna Woods and Dr Daragh Murray, both from the School of Law, contributed to a ‘Friends of the Court’ submission by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner to the Bridges appeal.

In addition, an annex, detailing Professor Fussey and Dr Murray’s findings in relation to the Metropolitan Police Service, was attached to the Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s submission.

The Court of Appeal upheld the Bridges appeal on four of its five grounds.

Commenting on the judgment, Professor Pete Fussey said: “The Court’s findings in relation to the use of live facial recognition technology by South Wales Police are consistent with our findings regarding the Metropolitan Police Service, in particular that such deployments are not ‘in accordance with the law’, and that too much discretion is given to police in determining who should be placed on a watchlist. The Court of Appeal was entirely correct in concluding that facial recognition cannot be considered as equivalent to the use of CCTV. The use of advanced surveillance technologies like live facial recognition demands proper consideration and full parliamentary scrutiny.”

Dr Daragh Murray said: “The use of advanced surveillance technologies, like live facial recognition, represent a step change in police capability, with potentially significant consequences for the functioning of our democracy, in terms of how individuals develop and interact and how challenges to, or protests against, government policy evolve. The Court of Appeal’s findings today regarding South Wales Police are consistent with many of our own conclusions regarding the Metropolitan Police Service. This is an important decision, particularly the conclusion that deployments were not ‘in accordance with the law’. However, many issues remain to be addressed, including the broader societal impact of facial recognition. What is abundantly clear is that all police forces should pay greater attention to human rights law considerations before deciding to deploy new surveillance technologies.”

Professor Lorna Woods said: “The judgment in ruling that the police use of Automated Facial Recognition as it stands is unlawful is welcome, but it also highlights the problems arising from a system where new surveillance technologies can be deployed based on very general common law powers without adequate safeguards. New legislation on this topic is required, to address not only the proposed use of facial recognition technology, but police use of Artificial Intelligence generally.”

Professor Lorna Woods is Professor of Internet Law. She has extensive experience in the field of media policy and communications regulation, including social media and the Internet and developed, with Will Perrin, a social media duty of care, which has had significant influence on the direction on the UK Online Harms debate. Professor Woods is an established member of a broader network of advisors who support the Surveillance Camera Commissioner in his role.

Professor Pete Fussey and Dr Daragh Murray are co-authors of the independent report into the London Metropolitan Police Service’s trial of live facial recognition technology, published by the ERSC Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project in July 2019. It remains the only fully independently-funded report into police use of live facial recognition technology in the UK.

South Wales Police said it would not be appealing the Court of Appeal judgment.