UK Information Commissioner aims for facial recognition software

The UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has got facial recognition software in her sights as the worrying trend of surveillance continues to gather steam.

While technological evolution and progress should not be inhibited, certain areas should be guided down the right and ethical path. Facial recognition software is certainly one of these technologies as aside from the data protection ramifications, the intrusive and covert nature could have a negative impact on an individual’s right to privacy. In a democratic society this should not be a concern, though Western governments have shown themselves incapable of respecting privacy when left to their own devices.

“I have identified FRT by law enforcement as a priority area for my office and I recently wrote to the Home Office and the NPCC setting out my concerns,” Denham wrote on the ICO blog. “Should my concerns not be addressed I will consider what legal action is needed to ensure the right protections are in place for the public.”

The concerns from Denham are raised at an appropriate time. It was only last week the South Wales Police Force announced worrying results after introducing facial recognition software in its policing efforts during the 2017 Champions League Final in Cardiff. The technology was only successful 8% of the time, producing 2,297 false positive identifications.

While the effectiveness of the technology should be a fear for anyone passing by Big Brothers eye, the data protection and privacy ramifications are the biggest apprehension here. Denham has made a number of points, including justification and accountability. On the justification side, not only does there need to be evidence the technology works, but also an indication the same results could not be achieved using less intrusive methods or technology.

This is one of the big problems when it comes to this segment of the biometrics world; no permission is sought. To identify an individual with finger prints or iris scanning, said individual would have to actively participate in the procedure. By doing so, this individual acknowledges the process and consents. Facial recognition requires no participation or consent in some circumstances, making the individual completely unaware information is being gathered on him/her. It creates a whole new privacy debate.

Accountability is another area which should worry the masses, as right now there isn’t any.

“At another level, I have been deeply concerned about the absence of national level co-ordination in assessing the privacy risks and a comprehensive governance framework to oversee FRT deployment,” said Denham. “I therefore welcome Baroness Williams’ recent confirmation of the establishment of an oversight panel which I, alongside the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC), will be a member of.”

On a national level there needs to be a mechanism which firstly ensures data is suitable protected, secondly, personal information is handling correctly and finally, the practice of surveillance is managed by an ethical oversight committee. The fact the South Wales Police proceeded without any accountability is incredibly worrying, and this cannot be allowed to continue.

Surveillance technologies are incredibly dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, and Denham’s work over the next couple of months may well define an individual’s right to privacy in the future. This is an exceptionally important task Denham and her team are undertaking and should not be taken lightly.

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