UK lawmakers say live facial recognition lacks a legal basis

Lords warn Home Secretary there is nothing to regulate wider trawl of large populations

A UK committee in its upper house has written to Home Secretary James Cleverly to warn of the lack of legal basis for the use of live facial recognition by police.

The House of Lords' Justice and Home Affairs Committee told the Conservative member of parliament that Live Facial Recognition technology (LFR) — which compares a live camera feed of faces against a predetermined watchlist — has no clear legal foundation. There are no rigorous standards or systems of regulation to govern LFR, and there is no consistency in approaches to training in its use by police forces, the Lords added.

Baroness Hamwee, chair of the Committee, asked: "Does the use of LFR have a basis in law? Is it actually legal?"

She added: "It is essential that the public trusts LFR and how it is used. It is fundamental that the legal basis is clear. Current regulation is not sufficient. Oversight is inadequate. Technology is developing so fast that regulation must be future-proofed."

She said the UK was an "outlier" among democracies in terms of the speed at which it was applying LFR.

"We question why there is such disparity between the approach in England and Wales and other democratic states in the regulation of LFR," Baroness Hamwee said.

The committee's letter addressed to the Home Secretary says: "Police forces may soon be able to link LFR cameras to trawl large populations, such as Greater London and not just specific localities. There is nothing to regulate this. The public need to be aware of this potential and for there to be an informed scrutiny by Parliament of the risks and benefits."

The Committee calls for a clear legal foundation for using LFR, a framework for regulating the deployment of the technology and independent scrutiny of these processes.

The Lords said LFR may be a valuable in policing, but added it was "deeply concerned" that its use was being expanded without proper scrutiny and accountability.

The Committee's letter followed a report from June 2022, which said that "without sufficient safeguards, supervision, and caution, advanced technologies may have a chilling effect on a range of human rights, undermine the fairness of trials, weaken the rule of law, further exacerbate existing inequalities, and fail to produce the promised effectiveness and efficiency gains."

In its letter, the group said it was "disheartened" by the government's response to the earlier report.

UK's biometrics and surveillance commissioner has also highlighted failings in the Home Office's approach to governing the technology, saying the Whitehall department had failed to offer the support required to carry out his duties.

Dr Fraser Sampson's role is set to be taken over by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office (IPCO) once the Data Protection and Digital Information (DPDI) Bill comes into force this spring. Sampson has voiced concern the bill will wipe out oversight of facial recog in the country.

Nonetheless, last year, the UK minister for policing called for forces to double their use of algorithmic-assisted facial recognition in a bid to snare more criminals.

Chris Philp MP, Minister of State for Crime, Policing and Fire, said both the use of live and retrospective facial recognition should increase following a commitment to spend £17.5 million ($21.3 million) on "a resilient and highly accurate system" to search all databases of images the police can access. ®

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