Facial recognition


Posted on 11 Aug 2020

Victory in world-first legal challenge hailed as huge step in fight against oppressive surveillance tool

  • Court of Appeal finds surveillance tool breaches rights
  • Liberty calls on Government to take swift action and ban dangerous tech

Liberty has won a ground-breaking legal challenge against police use of oppressive facial recognition technology.

In a judgment handed down today, the Court of Appeal agreed with Liberty’s submissions, on behalf of Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, 37, and found South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology breaches privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws.

The judgment means the police force leading the use of facial recognition on UK streets must halt its long-running trial.

The Court held that there were “fundamental deficiencies” in the legal framework and that Ed Bridges’ rights were breached as a result.

The ruling also states that: “The fact remains, however, that SWP have never sought to satisfy themselves, either directly or by way of independent verification, that the software program in this case does not have an unacceptable bias on grounds of race or sex.”

This is the world’s first legal challenge to police use of facial recognition technology, which Liberty has long argued is an inherently oppressive and discriminatory surveillance tool. It threatens our privacy rights and freedom of expression, and increases police discrimination against people of colour, Liberty says.

Ed Bridges said:

“I’m delighted that the Court has agreed that facial recognition clearly threatens our rights.

“This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool. For three years now South Wales Police has been using it against hundreds of thousands of us, without our consent and often without our knowledge. We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance.”

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said:

“This judgment is a major victory in the fight against discriminatory and oppressive facial recognition.

“The Court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties. Facial recognition discriminates against people of colour, and it is absolutely right that the Court found that South Wales Police had failed in their duty to investigate and avoid discrimination.

“It is time for the Government to recognise the serious dangers of this intrusive technology. Facial recognition is a threat to our freedom – it needs to be banned.”

In September 2019, the High Court found that South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition is not unlawful, but 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. Liberty challenged that ruling at the Court of Appeal in June 2020, arguing that it did not fully account for the ways in which the technology breaches our privacy and data protection rights and discriminates against people of colour.

Today, the Court of Appeal overturned the previous ruling, finding that the legal framework relied upon by South Wales Police does not protect our privacy rights. The Court also found that South Wales Police had failed to adequately take account of the discriminatory impact of facial recognition technology, and had failed to meet its obligations under equality laws.

Finally, today’s decision said that by scanning our faces, the technology processes our unique and sensitive data, and that South Wales Police breached requirements for that processing under data protection legislation.

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.

Liberty’s petition calling for a ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public has been signed by nearly 50,000 people.

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

Contact the Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 / 07973 831 128 or pressoffice@libertyhumanrights.org.uk

Notes to Editors:

  • 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 around 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, which began in early 2017 and has no end date.
  • Ed Bridges first got permission to bring the case in January 2019. South Wales Police did not challenge the application.
  • South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology was challenged at a three-day hearing in Cardiff on 21-23 May 2019.
  • The judgment was handed down in September 2019. Ed Bridges was granted permission to appeal on all grounds in November 2019, and the appeal was heard remotely on 23-25 June 2020.
    The case was funded through public donations via CrowdJustice.

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