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Facial Recognition Technology

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 2 October 2019


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to regulate the use of facial recognition technology.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper. I remind the House of my interest as chair of Big Brother Watch.

My Lords, the judgment in the South Wales Police case confirms that there is a clear and sufficient legal framework for the police to use live facial recognition. We will keep governance under review and work with the police and others to ensure that public trust and confidence in the police’s use of new technology are maintained.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The Government have previously confirmed that this highly intrusive technology is being deployed in a legal vacuum. Alarmingly, we have recently discovered that private companies have for years been secretly using automated facial recognition in public spaces, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has warned that we are sleepwalking into an “Orwellian … police state” and called for a code of ethics and a strict legal framework. Parliament must provide these. In the meantime, will the Government impose a moratorium on the use of this intrusive technology?

The Government do not intend to place a moratorium on the technology’s use, but the noble Lord is right that such use needs to be carefully governed and be in line with the law and human rights, and with a clear oversight framework. Use of the technology in the private sector—the noble Lord might have alluded to this—is currently being looked at by the ICO.

Will the Minister consider the utter incompetence of the private and public companies which create facial recognition technology? You have these machines and you pay a vast sum of money for them, but when you put your face on them, they cannot recognise you for anything. Is it not better to press for the improvement of the system rather than trying to clamp down on something that is in no way ready to be used properly yet?

I hate to differ on this with my noble friend, but e-gate technology is in fact superb at matching facial recognition to passports—in some cases, better than humans. However, the human eye in these things is of course not to be dismissed and it can detect all sorts of other things in terms of e-gates.

My Lords, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner reported in July that not only facial recognition but gait analysis, lip-reading technology, algorithms that can predict fights and sensors that can detect explosives and radiation are all in development and all linked to surveillance cameras. Given the enormous potential of those developments, both positive and negative, and the need for trust on the part of the public, will the Government commission an independent review, with clear parameters, into how, if at all, such investigatory powers should be used and how that use should be supervised in the public interest? Does she agree with the commissioner that there is a case for placing the oversight of all these powers with the existing Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office?

I agree with the noble Lord that the emergence of these new technologies necessitates a very careful approach. The live facial recognition technology is currently being trialled rather than fully rolled out, so we need to be very careful about it. In terms of oversight, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner has provided guidance for the police. We have established an oversight board, and the police are bringing forward proposals for new trials. We are working with the police on the development of national operational guidance, which will capture the lessons learned, as well as best practice. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right: with all these new technologies, we need to tread with extreme care and balance their proportionate use with the interests of the public.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as listed in the register. Is it not the case that the genie is out of the bottle as far as many of these technologies are concerned? They are in current use in the private sector, as well as being used by investigatory agencies. Can the Minister confirm the regulatory frameworks for the use of these technologies which apply and which are legally binding on the private sector, and will the Government give an undertaking that the police and the other agencies will not be disadvantaged compared with the private sector in accessing and using these technologies?

The noble Lord makes a good point. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, the use of this technology is being looked at by the ICO. It has launched an investigation following concerns about the use of LFR by managers of shopping malls in and around King’s Cross. I have explained the oversight process to the noble Lord but, as I said to other noble Lords, it is very important that the technology is used proportionately and within the law, and of course the court judgment last month confirmed that that was the case.

My Lords, is the Minister not concerned that using custody image databases that include pictures of unconvicted people in conjunction with facial recognition technology is potentially a breach of innocent people’s human rights? Is this not another reason why the Government need to take action?

It might be helpful to the noble Lord if I outlined the types of people who could be on a watch list. They are persons wanted on warrants, individuals who are unlawfully at large, persons suspected of having committed crimes, persons who might be in need of protection, individuals whose presence at an event causes particular concern, and of course vulnerable persons—we must not lose sight of the fact that the technology can be incredibly useful in detecting vulnerable people.

My Lords, surely the problem is that the law in this area is deficient. It is very difficult to balance the utility of the technology against the intrusion on personal rights. Does the Minister not agree that the debate should be held in Parliament and, to that end, that the Government should commit to bringing forward a robust legislative framework for consideration?

As I said before, we must proceed very carefully with such developing technologies. It is very important that the police have clear legal frameworks within which to operate. However—not one month ago—the High Court said that there is a sufficient legal framework for police use of facial recognition technology. This consists of common-law powers, data protection and human rights legislation, and the surveillance camera code.