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Metropolitan Police: Live Facial Recognition

Volume 802: debated on Monday 16 March 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Metropolitan Police about the use of Live Facial Recognition deployments; whether the watchlists for such deployments are composed exclusively of serious criminals; and what is the definition of serious criminals for this purpose.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Strasburger, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Home Office has regular discussions with the Metropolitan Police Service about a wide range of issues, including facial recognition. It has published detailed information about its approach to the deployments, including on the composition of watchlists.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As this dangerously invasive technology develops, taking us ever closer to a surveillance society, the Government continue to claim that it is for use in the catching of only serious criminals, not people with overdue parking fines. However, the Metropolitan Police’s operating procedures make no mention whatever of limiting its use to serious criminals. How does the Minister explain this discrepancy? When will the Government end their wilful blindness and halt the uncontrolled use of facial recognition until Parliament has had an opportunity to legislate to manage it?

My Lords, there were several points in that question. First, the High Court has said that the police are operating within the legal framework. Secondly, this technology would not be used in relation to overdue parking tickets. To quote the Metropolitan Police, its use of this technology targets

“those wanted for imprisonable offences, with a focus on serious crime, with a particular regard to knife and gun crime, child sexual exploitation and terrorism”.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a lot of misinformation on this subject in the public domain? Can she confirm to the House that there is no intention to record images of members of the ordinary public?

I can absolutely confirm that LFR is deployed against a watchlist, which is not made up of every member of the public but of those people I have just listed, for the safety of the public.

My Lords, in her annual report of 25 February, the Forensic Science Regulator described the biometric oversight board, relied on in the High Court judgment that the Minister mentioned, as having made

“no substantive progress towards establishing an effective governance and oversight framework for police use of facial recognition or other biometrics.”

The role of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner is coming to an end in June, with no future plans announced. There is, to coin a phrase, a question of trust. Does the Minister agree that overt surveillance and biometric uses such as live facial recognition need to be properly regulated by statute, or at least until then by a revised code, and that the office of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner would be the appropriate body to take this on?

As the noble Lord will know, we engage with both the ICO and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner. I totally get his point about the term of office being up in June and I know that we will have further discussions about how best to deploy the governance of this very exciting but potentially risky technology.

My Lords, I would be delighted to stand for that job if there is an opening. Peers have heard that the Met is not only looking for serious criminals with this technology but also mixing up vulnerable people who are being looked for. Can the Minister convince me that that is not true?

Missing people deemed vulnerable—a risk either to themselves or to other people—may well be the subject of LFR deployment for their own safety.

My Lords, I certainly endorse the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and I hope the Government will take it on board. How accurate is this facial recognition technology? I have been told that a deployment of the technology at Oxford Circus on 27 February scanned 8,600 faces to see whether any matched a watchlist of more than 7,000 individuals and that, during the session, police wrongly stopped five people and correctly stopped one. If that information is anywhere near accurate, it would suggest that the technology is not overly reliable. For how long were those apparently wrongly stopped at Oxford Circus detained, and for how long is the record of those wrongly stopped, including where they were stopped, retained?

My Lords, I understand that the incident at Oxford Circus was on 20 February. I understand also—I will be corrected if I am wrong—that the machinery was not working on that date .

My Lords, the Home Office and the Met seem absolutely determined to ignore all the advice they have been getting from the Information Commissioner, RUSI and many others. To cap it all, the database of Clearview, a US tech company with highly controversial data-collecting methods, is now being used by the Met and several other UK police forces in their facial recognition deployment. For what purposes are the Clearview database being used? Has legal advice been sought, given that 3 billion images are involved in this sensitive biometric processing without any data subject’s knowledge or consent, and does all this not add up, once again, to make the case for a moratorium and a review of the regulation of this technology?

My Lords, I understand that the Met has stated that the images on the watchlist are drawn from its own database of images taken on arrest, or other images of suspects.