Facial recognition ‘not fit for use’, Scottish committee finds

Written by Jenni Davidson on 12 February 2020 in News

MSPs warn of potential of ‘Wild West’ environment for new technology

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Facial recognition technology is “currently not fit for use” by Police Scotland, a Holyrood committee has concluded.

The Justice Sub-Committee on Policing has told Police Scotland that it needs to demonstrate the legal basis for using the technology and its compliance with human rights and data-protection legislation before introducing it.

It has also called for inaccuracies and inbuilt biases to be eradicated before it can be considered fit for purpose.

Committee convener John Finnie warned of a “facial recognition Wild West” without a legal framework in place to protect the public and police.

Trials of facial recognition technology have already taken place in police forces in England and Wales, which have been challenged in court.

Concerns have also been raised about the very high levels of inaccuracy – reported to be 98% in the technology trialled by the Metropolitan Police and 91% in the technology used by South Wales Police – as well as inbuilt gender and racial bias.

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The software relies on a machine-learning algorithm which is built up by ‘training’ the system using a set of labelled images, but because the majority of the images used in setting up the system are of white men, the system is more likely to be wrong when trying to recognise women and ethnic minorities, leading to potential bias and discrimination.

The sub-committee called for references to the introduction of live facial recognition technology to be removed from Police Scotland’s ten-year Policing 2026 strategy if it has no plans to introduce the technology within that timescale.

It is also requesting that the Scottish Police Authority and the new Scottish Biometrics Commissioner – if the relevant legislation is passed by MSPs to create the post – review Police Scotland's use of retrospective facial recognition technology, particularly images held illegally on the UK Police National Database or on IT systems inherited from legacy Scottish forces, which may include images of people not convicted of any crime.

Speaking as the report was published, Finnie said: “The sub-committee is reassured that Police Scotland have no plans to introduce live facial recognition technology at this time. It is clear that this technology is in no fit state to be rolled out or indeed to assist the police with their work. Current live facial recognition technology throws up far too many ‘false positives’ and contains inherent biases that are known to be discriminatory.”

He added: “Our inquiry has also shone light on other issues with facial recognition technology that we now want the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Government to consider. Not least amongst these are the legal challenges against similar technologies in England and Wales, and the apparent lack of law explicitly governing its use in Scotland – by any organisation.

“So, whether this technology is being used by private companies, public authorities or the police, the Scottish Government needs to ensure there is a clear legal framework to protect the public and police alike from operating in a facial recognition Wild West.”

Assistant chief constable Duncan Sloan, Police Scotland lead for major crime and public protection, said: "Police Scotland is not using, trialling or testing live facial recognition technology. We are keeping a watching brief on the trialling of the technology in England and Wales. Prior to any such technology being implemented we would carry out a robust programme of public consultation and engagement around the use of this technology, its legitimacy, viability and value for money. 

“This would include taking advice and guidance on ethical, human rights and civil liberties considerations. In my view, the use of such technology would not be widespread but would be used in an intelligence-led, targeted way."


About the author

Jenni Davidson is a journalist at PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @HolyroodJenni.

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