Main content

MPs urge Home Office to stop facial recognition trials

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 18, 2019
The influential Science and Technology Committee has said that the legal basis for automatic facial recognition has been called into question.

An image of Liverpool Street Station and a busy crowd

MPs on the Science and Technology Committee have urged the Home Office to suspend all automatic (or ‘live’) facial recognition trials, which are mostly being used by police forces in England and Wales, until there is a sufficient regulatory framework, as well as guidance and trial protocols, have been introduced. 

Just this week the Home Office said that it was going to continue to use facial recognition technology for further trials aimed at finding missing persons. 

However, MPs on the Committee have said that there is growing evidence from respected, independent bodies that has brought the legal basis for the use of automatic facial recognition (AFR) into question. 

AFR is the automated one-to-many matching of near real-time video images of individuals with a curated watchlist of facial images. Since 2016 is has been trialled by the Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police. 

The Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group evaluated the trials in both areas and concluded that there had been a “lack of independent oversight and governance of” the use of AFR. It proposed a “number of ethical principles that can be used to inform these developments and frame policy making” and raised questions about the accuracy of the technology, as well as its potential for biased outputs and biased decision making. 

The Information Commissioner is also said to be so concerned about the use of AFR by police forces in public spaces that she had opened a priority investigation to understand and investigate its use. 

The Committee, therefore, has recommended that AFR should not be deployed until concerns over the technology’s effectiveness and potential bias have been fully resolved. The MPs have also called on the government to issue a moratorium on the current use of AFR and that no further trials should take place until a legislative framework has been introduced. 

Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

The proper use, provision and regulation of biometrics and forensics are key if the criminal justice system is to function effectively.

The Government might claim to "strongly support" the Forensic Science Regulator Bill but its actions do not meet its words. Now is the time for action.

The legal basis for automatic facial recognition has been called into question, yet the Government has not accepted that there’s a problem. It must. A legislative framework on the use of these technologies is urgently needed. Current trials should be stopped and no further trials should take place until the right legal framework is in place.”

In addition to the use of AFR, the Committee also raised concerns about the region of custody images, as these images can form the basis of ‘watchlists’ for AFR when used by police forces in public spaces. The Committee found that over the past year, progress has stalled on ensuring that the custody images of unconvicted individuals are weeded and deleted. 

The Committee’s report states: 

It is unclear whether police forces are unaware of the requirement to review custody images every six years, or if they are simply ‘struggling to comply’. What is clear, however, is that they have not been afforded any earmarked resources to assist with the manual review and weeding process. 

The Minister previously promised improvements to IT systems that would have facilitated automatic deletion. Such improvements now appear to have been delayed indefinitely. As such, the burden remains on individuals to know that they have the right to request deletion of their image. As we stated in 2018, this approach is unacceptable and we agree with the Biometrics Commissioner that its lawfulness requires further assessment.

MPs on the Committee have urged police forces to give higher priority in the allocation of their resources to ensure a comprehensive manual deletion process of custody images in compliance with national guidance. 

A grey colored placeholder image