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Facial recognition needs a stronger case in law enforcement

Questions persist about the legal and ethical justifications for the use of facial recognition outside exceptional cases of criminality.


Do you think that the police should be allowed to use facial recognition technology? It’s a question I’m asked almost every day as the UK’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner.


Consider the case of Frank R. James. In April, James set off smoke bombs on a crowded subway carriage in Brooklyn, New York, before shooting ten commuters and disappearing in the ensuing chaos. Police soon ascertained his identity, however, by finding the key to his rental van close to the crime scene, along with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun, fireworks, undetonated smoke grenades and a hatchet. The subsequent manhunt for James involved hundreds of officers from multiple federal and state law enforcement agencies. It lasted 29 hours.


Freeze frame at one hour after the incident and, in many ways, you have an exemplary justification for the use of live facial recognition in law enforcement: a terrorist attack in a densely populated city, taking place on a transport system equipped with extensive surveillance camera systems, an identified suspect and available images of what he looks like. He’s armed, he’s fired 33 rounds into a crowded carriage and detonated multiple devices – and he’s missing.


If, at this moment, the police had the technical capability to feed James’ image into the combined surveillance systems in the area and ‘instruct’ the cameras to look for their suspect, on what basis could they responsibly refuse to do so? That’s the ‘if’ that we have to recognise now, as the capabilities of live facial recognition continue to mature. However, the parameters of where, when, how and by whom the technology can be used in less extreme cases remain undefined.


In the case of James, it doesn’t appear that such a level of surveillance capability was available. Instead, law enforcement agencies named the suspect and released his picture, urging the public to keep sending them footage from the crime scene and elsewhere as they pieced together his movements. This response and the reliance on the citizen’s technology – and their willingness to share it – are also a critical feature of how police surveillance of public space has shifted. Here’s why.


Advocates of facial recognition argue that the technology could prove indispensable during criminal manhunts. The legal and ethical ramifications for using it in less extreme scenarios, however, remain unexplored. (Photo by izusek / Getty Images)


The surveillance relationship

Public space surveillance by the police in England and Wales is governed largely by the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. But the practice has moved on from the world initially envisaged by the Code’s drafters, a world in which the police needed images of the citizen to one where they also need images from the citizen. Following any incident, many police forces now regularly make public requests for images that might have been captured on personal devices.


Not all of this interaction between the public and the police is benign, or predictable. Often, the citizen is also capturing images of the police themselves: the faces of many law enforcement personnel who visited the Brooklyn crime scene, for example, were broadcast worldwide on global news channels. As people now have access to surveillance tools that only a decade ago were restricted to state agencies, the risks of facial recognition technology being used to frustrate vital aspects of our criminal justice system such as witness protection, victim relocation and covert operations are obvious – an aspect that has received comparatively little attention in the many debates on the subject.


Some might say that, if a city were to synthesise its overall surveillance capability across its transport network, street cameras, traffic and dash cams, body-worn devices and employees’ smartphones, this would amount to the same thing as asking citizens to send in their images – albeit in a far more efficient, effective and less randomly intrusive way. Arguably it is, but in order to arrive at the freeze-framed moment above, a city would first need to develop a fully integrated public space surveillance system equipped with facial recognition technology, sound and voice analytics, vehicle licence plate readers and a host of other features invisible to the naked eye.


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Article from Tech Monitor by By Fraser Sampson

Sept. 5th, 2022

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