Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning , Governance & Risk Management , Next-Generation Technologies & Secure Development

UK Lawmakers Call for Halt to Live Facial Recognition

Petition Signed by 65 Parliamentarians and 31 Civil Society Organizations
UK Lawmakers Call for Halt to Live Facial Recognition
A CCTV camera in London (Image: Shutterstock)

More than five dozen British lawmakers across political parties as well as privacy rights organizations called for an "immediate stop" to real-time facial recognition in the United Kingdom.

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In a petition signed by 65 parliamentarians and 31 civil society organizations, signatories denounced private sector and law enforcement use of the artificial intelligence technology that matches live images with a database of stored facial images.

Live facial recognition faces a possible continentwide ban in Europe through the anticipated enactment of the AI Act.* Law enforcement use of facial recognition is banned in a handful of U.S. jurisdictions, according to a tally kept by advocacy group Fight for the Future.

The signatories, including Conservative politician and former Brexit Secretary David Davis, Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey and former Labour Party Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti, said their objections range widely. They include "serious concerns about its incompatibility with human rights, to the potential for discriminatory impact, the lack of safeguards" as well as a lack of evidence for the technology, the technology's legality "and the lack of a democratic mandate."

Unease about facial recognition's accuracy has dogged its use by law enforcement. A 2019 study by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology found higher rates of false positives for Asian and Black faces relative to images of whites. The New York Times reported in August that six individuals have described being falsely accused of a crime as a result of a false facial recognition match.

The petition came shortly after U.K. Minister for Policing Chris Philp announced plans to make the national passport photo database available to police for facial recognition searches, "not just for shoplifting but for crime generally to get those matches," The Guardian reported. British police resumed using live facial recognition earlier this year after a report by the National Physical Laboratory found minimal false positives and no statistically significant deviations across gender and ethnicity. In early November, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will host a summit on AI technologies (see: UK's AI Safety Summit to Focus on Risk and Governance).

"The U.K.'s reckless approach to face surveillance makes us a total outlier in the democratic world, especially against the backdrop of the EU's proposed ban," said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, which organized the petition. "This dangerously authoritarian technology has the potential to turn populations into walking ID cards in a constant police lineup."

Among the private artificial intelligence companies providing facial recognition technology in the U.K. are ClearviewAI, PimEyes and Facewatch. The Information Commissioner's Office in 2022 imposed a penalty of 7.5 million pounds against Clearview AI for using unlawfully obtained facial images of British citizens to power the company's AI database. The ICO initiated an investigation into live facial recognition provider Facewatch but concluded in March that the company had satisfied its concerns through measures such as "reducing the personal data they collect by focusing on repeat offenders or individuals committing significant offences."

*Clarification Oct. 10, 2023 20:36 UTC: Updates the article to state that an European ban on real-time facial recognition in public places is only a possibility. The European Parliament voted to amend the AI Act to ban real-time biometric identification in public places, but the European Council states that there should exist exceptions for law enforcement.

About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent, ISMG

Asokan is a U.K.-based senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She previously worked with IDG and other publications, reporting on developments in technology, minority rights and education.

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