Sajid Javid has given his support to the police in their trials of facial recognition technology.
Speaking at the launch of new technology aimed at helping police fight online child abuse, the Home Secretary said Javid said it was right for forces to "be on top of the latest technology".
"I back the police in looking at technology and trialling it and... different types of facial recognition technology is being trialled especially by the Met at the moment and I think it's right they look at that," he said.
The surveillance software, which is designed to help spot suspects in public spaces, has been trialled by several forces, including the Met.
Civil liberties campaigners have criticised the technology, which is the subject of a legal challenge.
But Mr Javid said it was important that police made use of the latest tools to help them solve crimes.
It’s not every day that technology is branded the “antithesis of British democratic freedom”, but then the rollout of facial recognition surveillance has prompted an explosive debate.
“The notion of live facial recognition turning citizens into walking ID cards is chilling,” Silkie Carlo, director of the Big Brother Watch, explains.
Installing it on our streets at scale – like CCTV cameras – would mark a “turning point for civil liberties in the UK”.
Carlo is part of the growing backlash against facial recognition surveillance, a new type of technology which uses specialised cameras to scan and identify faces by matching them against a database.
In recent months, debate has centred around whether police forces should be allowed to deploy the technology on Britain’s streets to help catch criminals.
It is a question that now reached the UK courts as the first legal challenge against it got underway earlier this year in Cardiff, a city which is emerging as a pioneer in its use of the technology.
“It is going to be fascinating because it’s going to actually highlight some of the tensions between the right to a private life but also the right of security of the state,” Renzo Marchini, a privacy lawyer at Fieldfisher, says.
“You might call it a privacy tug of war.”
This “tug of war” could, eventually, pave the way for how the technology is used to fight crime in future, and is expected to focus on one central question. “The main thing is going to be whether the police force here are justified in the way they are doing things”, he says.
“What are the police doing with this [facial recognition] van in a pedestrianised street in Cardiff? Are they trying to prevent terrorism, or are they trying to prevent shoplifters? If it’s terrorism, there may well be an argument for it being acceptable, which might not arise if they’re just trying to prevent shoplifting.”
Security experts agree that, when it comes to terror attacks, anything that helps tip the balance for police should be used. “What is more important – not being recognised or stopping a terror attack?” the former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office Chris Phillips told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday.
This technology should, of course, be regulated, he said, but at the moment, police have a “pretty much impossible task" in counter-terrorism.
On many issues, though, whether or not the police are “justified” in using it is less clear. Privacy campaigners are firm that constant scanning of faces is unlawful, but in India, where similar police facial recognition trials are taking place, law enforcement managed to track 3,000 missing children in just four days, something they said could only have been achieved with a machine.
When it comes to deploying the technology, the UK is perhaps already in a better position than other countries, given the huge number of CCTV cameras it has – between 4m and 6m private and public, the British Security Industry Association.
But it is not just cameras in the sky which could help police do their jobs better, advocates of the technology say.
“Think about stop and search in London,” Zak Doffman, the boss of Digital Barriers, a company which has produced a facial recognition body camera. “If police officers had access to these body-worn cameras which had facial recognition on them, they could be used as part of the stop and search process, to help identify if the people they’re talking to are known to the police.
“What this would mean is if a person has been stopped, but are not flagged by facial recognition technology, in future, they may not be allowed to be searched.”
While the conversation for now has been dominated by discussion about police, they are far from the only ones developing and starting to use the technology. Private businesses are looking at a whole host of applications, which are predicted to be worth $9.6bn (£7.3bn) by 2022, estimates from Allied Market Research have suggested.
One of those in the space is British company SmilePass, which has created a platform to help companies stop fraud using facial recognition technology.
What SmilePass does is work with governments and financial services companies to check people are who they say they are.
“We can make sure a government’s precious reserves of available money for expenditure on various public services are actually spent well and that they’re closing the door to a large extent to fraudsters,” boss Grant Crow says.
Another potential clients is the NHS which loses £217m per year on false prescriptions.
“People just turn up with a piece of paper and they get a prescription,” explains Allan Ponniah, the chief executive of Imperial College spinout FaceSoft. “If this was linked to their face it could avoid those kind of losses in the NHS, and make sure the right patient gets the right medicine for them.”
The NHS could also use this technology for things such as confidential notes, which would only open up if a certain face is in front of a screen, or to provide access to the wards, Ponniah says.
Using the technology is something the NHS seems increasingly open to. In the past three weeks, the NHS has begun using facial recognition as an option for iPhone users, to gain access to an app allowing them to book appointments or order repeat prescriptions.
Great Ormond Street Hospital is also working on a project with British software company Arm to look into the potential for using the technology in hospitals to track visitors or staff.
For many, seeing the technology pop up in more places is unlikely to be a surprise. After all, already passengers at many of the major airports across the UK are used to seeing e-gates to get through security, where they scan their face and passport to verify their identity.
This year, Heathrow is launching its first end-to-end facial recognition trial, allowing them to get through the whole airport process without having to be “manually” approved by another human. And, FaceSoft says, 24-hour gyms may be the next to introduce the technology.
For now, even as commercial companies develop new applications, questions still remain over whether tougher limits may be put on what police can do with the tech. Few believe it should be deployed everywhere by law enforcement, but, for many, an outright ban looks at risk of hampering efforts to stop terror cells or protect vulnerable people.
“Look, it has to be appropriate,” says Digital Barriers’ Doffman. “There is no way I would advocate blanket use. Nobody wants to live in a Big Brother state, but let me be clear, that is absolutely not on the cards in the UK.”
With facial recognition technology in the spotlight, how do you feel about the 'tug of war' between the right to privacy and the right to state security?
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