“No justifiable basis” for Police Scotland to use live facial recognition technology

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 11, 2020
Members of Scottish Parliament said that facial recognition software is known to discriminate against females and members of the BAME community.

Image of cameras looking at people on the street

Whilst Police Scotland has outlined its ambitions to make use of facial recognition technology in its 10-year strategy, which plans to introduce its use by 2026, Members of Scottish Parliament have said that there is “no justifiable basis” to do so under the current legal and regulatory frameworks. 

Members of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing have released a report this week that states that the use of facial recognition technology would be a “radical departure form Police Scotland’s fundamental principle of policing by consent”. 

It added that facial recognition software that is currently known to discriminate against females, and those from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. 

Police Scotland has confirmed to the Committee that it has no intention of introducing the technology at this time. 

The European Commission recently said that it is considering a ban on the use of facial recognition software in public areas for up to five years, to give regulators time to figure out how to stop the technology being abused. However, the London Met Police has continued to forge ahead with the use of live facial recognition technology, making its use operational in the UK capital. 

Commenting on the report this week, Sub-Committee Convener, John Finnie MSP, said:

The Sub-Committee is reassured that Police Scotland have no plans to introduce live facial recognition technology at this time. It is clear that this technology is in no fit state to be rolled out or indeed to assist the police with their work.

Current live facial recognition technology throws up far too many ‘false positives’, and contains inherent biases that are known to be discriminatory.

Our inquiry has also shone light on other issues with facial recognition technology that we now want the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Government to consider. Not least amongst these are the legal challenges against similar technologies in England and Wales, and the apparent lack of law explicitly governing its use in Scotland – by any organisation.

So whether this technology is being used by private companies, public authorities or the police, the Scottish Government needs to ensure there is a clear legal framework to protect the public and police alike from operating in a facial recognition Wild West.

Conclusions and recommendations

The Sub-Committee said that any decision to introduce live facial recognition technology to policing in Scotland must be subject to a robust and transparent assessment of its necessity and accuracy, looking at the impact on people and communities. 

It argues that politicians should play a key role in determining whether there is public consent for the use of this technology. 

However, Police Scotland currently does use retrospective facial recognition technology. The Sub-Committee said that a review should be undertaken by the Scottish Police Authority and any incoming Scottish Biometrics Commissioner, which should consider the risks and legal implications of Police Scotland accessing and using any images held illegally on the UK Police National Database of people who have not been convicted of any crime. 

The Sub-Committee’s report comes with a number of recommendations, some of which include: 

  • The Scottish Policy Authority must ensure that comprehensive human rights, equalities, community impact, data protection and security assessments are carried out, prior to any decision to introduce live facial recognition technology to policing in Scotland. 

  • The Cabinet Secretary for Justice must ensure that there is a robust legal and regulatory basis for the use of the technology in Scotland. 

  • Reviews should be carried out of the legal challenges to the use of the technology by police forces in England and Wales, so that the Scottish Policy Authority can mitigate the risk of similar legal challenges in Scotland. 

  • Police Scotland need to demonstrate that there is public consent for the use of live facial recognition technology before introducing it, as a lack of public consent risks undermining the legitimacy of the technology and potentially, public confidence in policing. 

  • It must be clarified how data protection requirements will be met. 

  • The Scottish Policy Authority should carry out a review of Police Scotland’s use of retrospective facial recognition technology. The review should take a human rights based approach to this assessment.