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UK police use of facial recognition tests public’s tolerance

Kelvin Chan
Associated Press

London – When British police used facial recognition cameras to monitor crowds arriving for a soccer match in Wales, some fans protested by covering their faces. In a sign of the technology’s divisiveness, even the head of a neighboring police force said he opposed it.

Soccer fans crowd outside the Cardiff City soccer stadium ahead of the English Championship match against Swansea City, in Cardiff, Wales on Jan. 12, 2020. The South Wales police deployed facial recognition surveillance equipment in a test to monitor crowds arriving for the weekend soccer match in real-time.

The South Wales police deployed vans equipped with the technology outside Cardiff stadium this week as part of a long-running trial in which officers scanned people in real time and detained anyone blacklisted from attending for past misbehavior. Rights activists and team supporters staged a protest before the game between Cardiff City and Swansea City, wearing masks, balaclavas or scarves around their faces.

“It’s disproportionate to the risk,” said Vince Alm, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Association Wales, which helped organized the protest. “Football fans feel as if they’re being picked on” and used as guinea pigs to test new technology, he said.

The real-time surveillance being tested in Britain is among the more aggressive uses of facial recognition in Western democracies and raises questions about how the technology will enter people’s daily lives. Authorities and companies are eager to use it, but activists warn it threatens human rights.

The British have long become used to video surveillance, with one of the highest densities of CCTV cameras in the world. Cameras have been used in public spaces for decades by security forces fighting threats from the Irish Republican Army and, more recently, domestic terror attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.

The recent advances in surveillance technology mean a new wave of facial recognition systems will put the public’s acceptance to the test.

South Wales police have taken the lead in Britain. In 2017 they started rolling out and testing face scanning cameras after getting a government funding grant. While a court last year ruled the force’s trial is lawful, regulators and lawmakers have yet to draw up statutory rules on its use.

The van-mounted cameras, using technology by Japan’s NEC, scan faces in crowds and match them up with a “watchlist,” a database mainly of people wanted for or suspected of a crime. If the system flags up someone passing by, officers stop that person to investigate further, according to the force’s website.

Rights groups say this kind of monitoring raises worries about privacy, consent, algorithmic accuracy, and questions about about how faces are added to watchlists.

It’s “an alarming example of overpolicing,” said Silkie Carlo, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We’re deeply concerned about the undemocratic nature of it. This is a very controversial technology which has no explicit basis in law.”

Her group has scrutinized other British police trials, including one by the London Metropolitan force last year, when officers pulled aside a man who tried to hide his face. They ended up fining him for a public order offence, the group said.

The North Wales police commissioner, Arfon Jones, said using facial recognition to take pictures of soccer fans was a “fishing expedition.” He also raised concerns about false positives.

British police and crime commissioners are civilians elected to oversee and scrutinize the country’s dozens of forces. They were introduced in 2012 to improve accountability.

“I’m uncomfortable at this creeping interference with our privacy,” Jones, himself a former police officer, said in an interview. He said police would be more justified using it if they had intelligence about a specific threat like an impending terrorist attack.

Jones clashed with his South Wales counterpart, Alun Michael, after raising similar concerns at a game-day deployment in October.

Michael said Jones’ criticism was based on misunderstanding of the technology and extensive scrutiny the police faced.

Facial recognition was used to spot fans banned from attending Sunday’s game based on previous misbehavior and anyone else’s biometric data was automatically deleted, he said.

“There has not been one single wrongful arrest as a result of the use of facial recognition by South Wales Police,” Michael said. The force has been deploying the technology about twice a month at big events including rugby games, royal visits and yacht races; it scanned nearly 19,000 faces at a Spice Girls concert in May and identified 15 on a watchlist, including nine incorrectly. Six others were arrested.