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Facial Recognition Technology

Volume 661: debated on Monday 10 June 2019

3. What assessment has been made of the accuracy of the facial recognition technology used by the Metropolitan Police Service. (911210)

Facial recognition technology can help the police to do their job. It must be right to support trials of this rapidly improving technology, but given its sensitivity it must also be right that the technology’s benefits should be independently reviewed. That is exactly what the Met is doing with the University of Essex and we will consider that review very carefully.

In May, San Francisco, one of the most tech-friendly cities in the world, banned the use of live facial recognition technology because of massive error rates and concerns about racial bias in its use. Five United Kingdom police forces use similar cameras and systems. Both the Met and South Wales police have seen a 90%— or worse—misidentification rate of innocent members of the public. It is clear that the cameras carry serious risks, yet no legislation governs the use of the technology; it operates in a legal void. The Minister refers to the Metropolitan police. This is not a decision for a police force to make; it is a decision for Parliament. Will the Minister bring legislation to the House laying down strict guidelines on the use of this technology?

My right hon. Friend has a long track record in this area. He is entirely right to raise the sensitivity in finding the right balance between security and civil liberties. On the Met’s numbers, there is a one in 1,000 chance of a false alert, but we need to see the evaluation. I am very clear in my mind that we need to support the police in trialling new technology, but if we are to take the public with us we have to be absolutely sure that it sits inside a regulatory framework that they trust. We believe that there is a legal framework for it, although that is being challenged in the courts. I give him my undertaking that, given the importance of maintaining public confidence and trust, we are doing urgent work to review the regulatory environment in which this technology development sits, including new oversight and advisory boards, because I recognise the fundamental importance of taking the public with us on this journey.

The police national database contains 15 million images, which have been used in a much less controversial way for static facial recognition since 2014, but police tell me that the algorithm that is used to support the database is out of date and needs investment. Will the Minister confirm that the necessary investment will be made?

I can confirm to the hon. Lady that, across a substantial range of technology requirements for the police, the Home Secretary and I are considering the funding requirements of the police in the context of the comprehensive spending review, and he and I have made it clear that police funding is our priority.

In the last year or so, the Met have issued many of their officers with tablet computers, but the feedback I have had from officers and constituents is that very often these are unstable, freeze routinely and can actually mean that work takes longer, so will the Minister talk to the Met Commissioner to ensure that their technology is stable and reliable for officers to use?

I have had those conversations with the Met Commissioner because I have heard exactly the same thing from members of the serious violence taskforce and officers on the beat in my own constituency. It is clear to us that mobility—the ability to work on the move without having to go back to the station to fill in reports—is critical to improving police productivity, so we must make sure we get the technology right.

What was not known during the Huawei furore was that it was a leading pioneer of facial recognition technology distinguishing between Han and Uighur citizens within the Chinese republic. Are the Government seeking to use this technology as a solution on the British border on the isle of Ireland?

I will not get drawn into that. It is our responsibility as a Government and a Parliament to support the police in pushing the frontiers of what technology can do in law enforcement, but I come back to this fundamental point: we have to take the public with us, and that means the regulatory environment has to be fit for purpose.

The Minister will be aware of the comments of the new independent reviewer of our counter-terror laws at the weekend about our police and security services using artificial intelligence and algorithms in detecting suspicious behaviour. He was speaking of a future like that in the film “Minority Report” where predictive technology drives everything. Is not the only way to establish the appropriate balance between liberty and security to create a new durable legislative framework that can be properly considered by this House? Why can he not commit to bringing that forward today?

I repeat that I am extremely aware of the need, as technology develops in this area and others, for there to be public confidence and trust in it, underpinned by a legislative and regulatory framework in which people have confidence. We feel that that legal framework is in place, but we are reviewing the oversight and regulatory framework in which this all sits, and that is a work of some urgency for me.