Anti-racism / Facial recognition

Liberty fights discriminatory facial recognition at Court of Appeal

Posted on 23 Jun 2020

  • Leading human rights organisation seeks to overturn judgment, citing concerns on privacy breaches and entrenchment of police discrimination
  • World’s first challenge to police use of facial recognition develops as major tech companies halt production over human rights concerns
  • Case brought by Cardiff man concerned by mass surveillance tool

Liberty, the human rights organisation, is taking a legal battle against facial recognition technology to the Court of Appeal today, arguing that the technology breaches human rights laws and is discriminatory.

Acting for Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, 37, who was subject to early trials of the surveillance tool, Liberty argues that South Wales Police’s use of the technology breaches privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws.

This is the world’s first legal case against the use of facial recognition as a mass police surveillance tool. The Court of Appeal hearing, to be live-streamed online, follows a ruling from the High Court in September 2019 that South Wales Police are not acting unlawfully when they use facial recognition technology.

Ed Bridges said: “We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance. For three years now South Wales Police has been using facial recognition against thousands of people, without our consent and often without our knowledge.

“This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool and I’m optimistic that the court will agree that it clearly threatens our rights.”

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: “Around the world people are waking up to how dangerous this technology is. While the big tech firms are addressing some concerns with moratoriums, these are short term solutions.

“We should be able to walk our streets and other public spaces without the threat of being watched, tracked and monitored, and the police should not be using any technology that is discriminatory and intrusive.  Facial recognition technology is an oppressive surveillance tool that clearly threatens our rights.”

Ed Bridges was scanned by the technology first on a busy Cardiff high street in December 2017, and again when he was at a protest in March 2018. South Wales Police have since used the technology over 70 times and regularly use it on crowds at major public events.

South Wales Police are pioneering the use of the technology in the UK and are officially still conducting a Home Office-sponsored trial.

In September 2019, the High Court found that South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition is not unlawful, but found that facial recognition interferes with the privacy rights of everyone scanned by a camera, and 500,000 people may have been scanned (by May 2019) by South Wales Police.

The Court found the current legal framework to be adequate, while warning that it would have to be subject to periodic review.

The Metropolitan Police began regularly using facial recognition earlier this year, despite a review of its own trials finding the technology may be unlawful for similar reasons to those Liberty and Ed Bridges are raising.

Two weeks before the hearing, under pressure from racial justice campaigners, tech giants IBM, Amazon and Microsoft all halted their supply of facial recognition to police forces, citing fears over discrimination and potential racial profiling. The appeal hearing is set against a backdrop of heightened concern over discrimination in UK policing, raised by Black Lives Matter protestors.

Dan Squires QC and Aidan Wills of Matrix Chambers are instructed by Liberty on behalf of Ed Bridges.

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