The UK’s new Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner is breaking from his predecessors on the subject of facial recognition. In that regard, Commissioner Fraser Sampson told the Financial Times that facial recognition should not be banned, and that the police should be free to use the technology at their own discretion.
That comment would seem to be somewhat at odds with the stated purpose of the office. The UK government created the position of the Biometrics and Surveillance Commissioner earlier this year, when it merged the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner into a single title. The new Commissioner is ostensibly responsible for monitoring the government use of biometric and surveillance technology to make sure that it does not have too severe an impact on the general population.
However, Sampson’s latest statements suggest that his sympathies lie with law enforcement rather than the British public. He argued that the police need to be able to use technologies like facial recognition and AI to keep pace with an increasingly sophisticated criminal element. He pushed back against blanket bans, and indicated that legislators should take a more relaxed approach to facial recognition legislation.
In doing so, he took a stance that is contrary to that of his predecessors. Former Biometric Commissioner Paul Wiles described facial recognition as an invasive technology and called for more transparency from the UK Home Office, while former Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter encouraged the creation of ethical oversight boards in a paper published in December. That paper did argue that the police should be able to use facial recognition as long as those stronger safeguards were put in place.
In August, a Welsh Court of Appeals ruled that a police surveillance program in Cardiff was unlawful, insofar as it violated data protection laws and infringed on the civil liberties of British citizens. That ruling also indicated that the police were given too much discretion (and had too little accountability) when using the technology.
“It is the only case in English law that gives us serious guidance on what automated decision-making systems should look like,” said Newcastle University Law Professor Lilian Edwards. “If you look at the abuses of facial recognition that have clearly gone on in the US, then it’s hard to say we should give police complete discretion over how to use these systems.
Privacy advocates are particularly worried about the potential for racial bias after false matches led to false arrests in the United States. The UK Home Office has been criticized for deploying a facial recognition system despite knowing that it was less accurate when applied to people with darker skin.
Sampson himself is a former police officer. Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission has asked the police to suspend their use of the technology until its impact can be more completely understood.
Source: Financial Times
May 5, 2021 – by Eric Weiss