UK police use of facial recognition tests public’s tolerance

LONDON (AP) — When British police used facial recognition cameras to monitor crowds arriving for a soccer match in Wales, some fans protested by covering their faces. In a sign of the technology’s divisiveness, even the head of a neighbouring police force said he opposed it.

The South Wales police deployed vans equipped with the technology outside Cardiff stadium this week as part of a long-running trial in which officers scanned people in real time and detained anyone blacklisted from attending for past misbehaviour. Rights activists and team supporters staged a protest before the game between Cardiff City and Swansea City, wearing masks, balaclavas or scarves around their faces.

“It’s disproportionate to the risk,” said Vince Alm, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Association Wales, which helped organised the protest. “Football fans feel as if they’re being picked on” and used as guinea pigs to test new technology, he said.

The real-time surveillance being tested in Britain is among the more aggressive uses of facial recognition in Western democracies and raises questions about how the technology will enter people’s daily lives. Authorities and companies are eager to use it, but activists warn it threatens human rights.

The British have long become used to video surveillance, with one of the highest densities of CCTV cameras in the world. Cameras have been used in public spaces for decades by security forces fighting threats from the Irish Republican Army and, more recently, domestic terror attacks after September 11, 2001.

Soccer fans crowd outside the Cardiff City soccer stadium ahead of the English Championship match against Swansea City, in Cardiff, Wales, as South Wales police are scheduled to test live facial recognition technology to monitor arriving fans for the soccer game. PHOTO: AP

The recent advances in surveillance technology mean a new wave of facial recognition systems will put the public’s acceptance to the test.

South Wales police have taken the lead in Britain. In 2017 they started rolling out and testing face scanning cameras after getting a government funding grant. While a court last year ruled the force’s trial is lawful, regulators and lawmakers have yet to draw up statutory rules on its use.

The van-mounted cameras, using technology by Japan’s NEC, scan faces in crowds and match them up with a “watchlist”, a database mainly of people wanted for or suspected of a crime. If the system flags up someone passing by, officers stop that person to investigate further, according to the force’s website.

Rights groups said this kind of monitoring raises worries about privacy, consent, algorithmic accuracy, and questions about about how faces are added to watchlists.

It’s “an alarming example of overpolicing,” said Director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch Silkie Carlo. “We’re deeply concerned about the undemocratic nature of it. This is a very controversial technology which has no explicit basis in law.”

Her group has scrutinised other British police trials, including one by the London Metropolitan force last year, when officers pulled aside a man who tried to hide his face. They ended up fining him for a public order offence , the group said.

The North Wales Police Commissioner Arfon Jones said using facial recognition to take pictures of soccer fans was a “fishing expedition”. He also raised concerns about false positives.

British police and crime commissioners are civilians elected to oversee and scrutinise the country’s dozens of forces.

They were introduced in 2012 to improve accountability.