Misleading, incompetent and authoritarian: the Home Office’s defence of facial recognition

Today (april 19th), the Home Office finally buckled under the pressure of our Face Off campaign against lawless facial recognition and the government’s hoarding of 19 million photos of citizens. Unfortunately, it didn’t resolve to make meaningful change – but, instead, in a letter to Norman Lamb MP, issued misleading spin to veil an incompetent mess of authoritarian surveillance practices.


You can read the letter, from Baroness Williams (Minister of State for Countering Extremism) to Norman Lamb MP (Chair of the Science and Technology Committee) here.

This Home Office attempt to defend police practice comes four weeks before Big Brother Watch is set to launch a new investigative report, Face Off: The Lawless Growth of Facial Recognition in the UK, in Parliament.

We debunk the Minister’s six main defences below:

  1. We will create a Board (to oversee facial recognition technology) including the three relevant regulators (the Biometrics Commissioner, Surveillance Camera Commissioner and Information Commissioner) and police representatives. This will (…) provide greater assurance that policing is complying with guidance”.

This translates as the Home Office vowing to plough ahead with automated facial recognition despite the lack of a legal basis; despite the concerns raised by rights and race equality groups; despite the clear affront to civil liberties; despite no operational case being made for its necessity; despite its cost to the public purse and astounding inaccuracy; and despite the existence of any relevant policy.

So when the Minister says this Board will “provide greater assurance that policing is complying with guidance”, what ‘guidance’ exactly does she mean? There is no formal guidance or policy on police use of facial recognition – and we would prefer that policing complies with our rights and respects the law.


We urge caution to the Commissioners – should they really agree to ‘oversee’ the exercise of a policing power that there is no legal basis or public consent for? In this legal and policy black hole, can they provide the right legal guidance, human rights analysis, and policy advice?


The creation of a Board merely provides the police and the Home Office with a fig leaf of ‘oversight’ veiling the lack of any legal basis for the deployment of automated facial recognition on our streets. The only thing this Board gives us “greater assurance” of is the Home Office’s dogged determination to roll out this authoritarian technology.

  1. The “’watch list’ may include those who are banned from attending the event, known criminals that operate in a crowded space or individuals on warrant for an arrest”.

Note the words “may include”. The Minister omits the fact that on Remembrance Sunday 2017, the Metropolitan Police used automated facial recognition to find so-called ‘fixated individuals’ – people not suspected of any crime, but who typically suffer mental health issues and have fallen through the care net. Function creep is already plain to see – and the technology is barely out of the box.

Despite this, the Minister writes that she has, “been informed” that at Remembrance Sunday “the watch list was populated with images of individuals forbidden from attending the events, as well as individuals wanted by police”. This is directly at odds with what the police officers operating the technology said both before and after they deployed facial recognition at Remembrance Sunday– that the watch list contained around 50 so-called ‘fixated individuals’ who were not wanted for any crime or arrest nor were forbidden from attending. Something doesn’t add up.


Nevertheless, the precedent that this justification sets is disturbing. The letter notes that in relation to Notting Hill Carnival, the “watch-list” of those wanted by police included “people involved in… sexual assault”. Why aren’t police using their resources to actively find the individuals wanted for arrest as soon as possible – particularly, in relation to offences as serious as sexual assault? Why are the police waiting for suspected sex offenders to attend public events and hoping they are picked out by their currently poor quality facial recognition cameras? Surely that allows a high risk to the public?


The idea that police should use hi-tech, intrusive surveillance and biometric tracking as a catch net for people wanted for arrest is absurd and is an approach that would inevitably rapidly securitise free public spaces.

  1. AFR (automated facial recognition) is an evolution of ‘super recognisers’”.

It is plainly misleading to suggest that biometric tracking is an evolution of ‘super recognisers’ – officers trained to remember suspects’ faces and find them in crowd.

It is certainly true that the goal of each method is, at present, the same – both AFR and super-recognisers find people by analysing faces. But AFR technology is seismically different.


Individual officers don’t have the ability to biometrically scan every face in a crowd; to scan millions of people against watch lists of hundreds of people; or to automatically record biometric images of people walking by. Automated facial recognition significantly compromises the privacy of ordinary members of the public in a manner entirely different to super recognisers. Automated facial recognition creates biometric identity checkpoints on our streets.


read more here:

https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/2018/04/misleading-incompetent-and-authoritarian-the-home-offices-defence-of-facial-recognition/


Copyright:Big Brother Watch

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