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Facial Recognition Trials by South Wales Police Ruled Unlawful

Ross Kelly

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South Wales Police

Facial recognition technology is an “inherently oppressive and discriminatory surveillance tool”, civil rights groups warned.

Trial deployments of facial recognition technology by South Wales Police have been ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal.

The decision follows a legal challenge from civil rights group, Liberty, on behalf of Cardiff resident Ed Bridges. In September 2019, judges at London’s High Court dismissed Bridges’ case, ruling that the use of the technology was not unlawful.

However, the Court of Appeal found that South Wales Police’s use of automated facial recognition technology breaches privacy rights and data protection laws.

The Court deemed there were “fundamental deficiencies” in the legal framework which underpins the deployment of such technology, and that Mr Bridges’ rights were breached.

Furthermore, the Court also found that South Wales Police had failed in its duty to take into account any discriminatory impact of facial recognition technology, and as such had failed to meet its obligations under equality legislation.

“I’m delighted that the Court has agreed that facial recognition clearly threatens our rights,” Bridges said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

This judgement means that SWP must now halt its long-running trials of the invasive tech. The police service said it does not intend to appeal the Court’s findings.

“The test of our groundbreaking use of this technology by the courts has been a welcome and important step in its development,” said Chief Constable Matt Jukes, South Wales Police.

“I am confident this is a judgement that we can work with. Our priority remains protecting the public, and that goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to ensuring they can see we are using new technology in ways that are responsible and fair,” Jukes added.

This appeal marks the world’s first legal challenge against the use of AFR by police services. Liberty has frequently criticised the deployment of such technologies, arguing that AFR is an “inherently oppressive and discriminatory surveillance tool”.

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Liberty lawyer, Megan Goulding, welcomed the decision and urged the UK Government to band the use of automated facial recognition technology.

“The Court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties,” she said.

“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,” Goulding added.

South Wales Police has conducted extensive trials of facial recognition technology for several years now, most notably during the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff.

Bridges’ face was scanned by the technology on two separate occasions. First, on a busy Cardiff high street in December of 2017, and again while participating in a peaceful protest in March the following year.

Since these incidents, South Wales Police is known to have used the technology around 70 times to monitor crowds at large events and public gatherings.

South Wales Police isn’t alone in its experimentation with potentially invasive surveillance technologies. In London, the Metropolitan Police Force began regularly using facial recognition earlier this year, Liberty revealed.

The deployment of facial recognition tech in London has gone ahead despite a review of its trials finding the tech may be unlawful on similar grounds, the civil rights group noted.

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Big Brother Watch has also campaigned to prevent the deployment of facial recognition technology on British streets. The privacy rights group welcomed the decision as a watershed moment in the debate surrounding the use of the technology.

“This is a huge step forward in the fight against facial recognition and should deter police from lawlessly rolling out other kinds of oppressive technologies they’ve been looking at,” the group said in a statement.

“Dr Ed Bridges and Liberty have been admirably courageous and undeterred in their legal battle against South Wales Police and we have them to thank for this historic win,” the statement added.

Echoing Liberty’s statement, Big Brother Watch said it is now vital that a legislative ban on live facial recognition is introduced.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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