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26 Nov 2019

Facial Recognition

Michael Lyons, editor of Counter Terror Business Magazine

Michael Lyons, Editor of Counter Terror Business, looks at the rise and fall of facial recognition technology to improve security, and why balance is key if consent, and public acceptance, is to be reached

In July this year, the Science and Technology Committee voiced its concern over the current state of the government’s approach to biometrics and forensics. Now, this is not a new issue, but it has undoubtedly become a more noticeable one in the last 12-18 months.

In September, judges controversially ruled against a shopper who brought a legal challenge against police use of automated facial recognition technology. Ed Bridges claimed that his human rights were breached when he was photographed while Christmas shopping, echoing calls from several human rights and civil rights campaign groups that facial recognition capture is on par with the unregulated taking of DNA or fingerprints without consent.

Considered to be the first time any court in the world had considered the use of the technology, the court refused the judicial review, held in May, on all grounds, finding South Wales Police had followed the rules and their use of AFR was justified. As well and claiming that South Wales Police has been using facial recognition indiscriminately against thousands of innocent people, the argument that most stuck with the press was that the technology seriously undermines privacy in favour of government surveillance.

The same issue arose the following month when the Information Commissioner’s Office launched an investigation into the use of live facial recognition around London’s King’s Cross Estate after the technology was used without the public’s knowledge. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham stated that she was ‘deeply concerned’ by the growing use of facial recognition in public spaces by both law enforcement agencies and the private sector.

Across the pond, California has passed a bill placing a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology by state law enforcement for the next three years. Setting a precedent for facial recognition and biometric tech use in law enforcement, the Body Camera Accountability Act seeks to prevent the misuse of body cameras, particularly through face and biometric surveillance. San Francisco and Oakland passed similar bills previously, setting a precedent for state-wide legislation to pass.

However, the use of facial recognition does have its supporters. When he held the office of Home Secretary, Chancellor Sajid Javid gave his backing to the police in their trials of facial recognition cameras, despite the technology facing a legal challenge. Designed to help spot suspects in public spaces, Javid favoured the opinion that it was key that police are able to make use of the latest tools to help them solve crimes. Therefore, it was trialled by several forces, including the Metropolitan Police, at football matches, festivals, and parades.

Away from large organised gatherings at major events, the technology is also being rolled out at eight departure gates at Gatwick after a successful trial with easyJet. More than 20,000 passengers have already used the technology as part of that trial last year, with the airport claiming that more than 90 percent of people interviewed by airport staff said it sped up boarding and was easy to use. The airport plans to roll the technology out at eight departure gates in the North Terminal by 2022 when an extension to Pier 6 will be open.


How important is consent?

The difference here is the customer experience and the issue of permission. At Gatwick, the technology scans passengers' faces and compares it to the picture on their passports, and the name on their boarding pass, both of which are also scanned. The whole process, aside from being smoother and more efficient, keeps the public in control of events. They are informed, kept aware and present during the facial scanning. The issue when the technology is used to capture faces on CCTV to be checked in real-time against watch lists, often compiled by police, is that it infringes on an individual's right to privacy.

While technological advancements are making new forms of biometric techniques available, such as behavioural biometrics, digital fingerprint-based authentication is still regarded as having the highest level of maturity. Fingerprint technology has an implicit acceptance linked to the identity of the individual and delivers a lower false-positive result. Facial recognition, however, when used as a stand-alone biometric, suffers from the risk of challenge and public consent to accept usage based on a scenario, as seen in the case of the South Wales Police pilot program.

It is essential to take a strategic approach when embracing biometric technology. This entails going back to the basics and understanding the needs of the end-user, whether employee or customer and then taking an open approach to selecting the right biometric technique, for the right use case, based on the scenario. For example, as we have established, processing a passport application is very different from crime scene DNA collection.

Understandable concerns around street crime and public security are further amplified on a national level due to the potentially catastrophic consequences of failed security checks. One of the most important places this can be seen is at airport security checks, with both the general public and employees keen to see security measures improve. More rigorous identification must be enforced that begins from the onboarding process, as currently passport and visa applications are based on outdated techniques such as physical IDs or even third-person referrals. This is an area where a digital identity program with high adoption levels can gain consent. The ability to gain consent really lies in providing the combination of great digital user experience on mobile whilst ensuring a highly secure experience for the individual. The key here is that consent is easily gained if this balance can be achieved.


This article was submitted by Counter Terror Business as part of our media partnership with them.

This topic will be discussed further by Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner, at CTX in ExCeL London, 19 – 21 May 2020.

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