Data Driven Futures

Scottish parliament investigates facial recognition

Written by Peter Walker

Holyrood’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing has launched an inquiry into the use of facial recognition technology.

MSPs are keen to find out more about police use and future plans in relation to the tool, which is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Facial recognition technology can either be ‘live’ or ‘retrospective’. It is understood that Police Scotland currently use retrospective facial recognition technology from recorded CCTV, which is matched against faces in the Police National Database.

However, it is not currently clear whether other policing organisations, such as the British Transport Police or the National Crime Agency, use either form of facial recognition in Scotland.

Advances in technology mean that in addition to CCTV, images which could be used for facial recognition can come from body-worn cameras and potentially mobile phones.

Sub-committee convener John Finnie said: “Facial recognition could be a useful tool for police in fighting crime and keeping communities safe.

“However, it should not be forgotten that this technology is invasive to citizens’ privacy – the human rights and legal implications of using facial recognition need to be understood.”

He added that the committee wants to be reassured that police services are striking the right balance when using this technology. “We have a number of concerns we look forward to exploring further in the months ahead.”

This is the latest example of authorities placing the technology under scrutiny, following the Information Commissioner’s Office launching an investigation into how it had been used in the King’s Cross area of London, while the High Court threw out a bid to block the use of facial recognition by police in South Wales in a landmark ruling.

Elsewhere, the Scottish Justice Committee is currently considering the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill, which is looking at introducing a Biometrics Commissioner for Scotland. Police Scotland has indicated that they are awaiting this commissioner before trialling live facial recognition.

Around 13 million faces are on the UK Police National Database. This currently also contains images of people subsequently cleared of any offence.

A 2012 court decision ruled that holding such images was unlawful. However, the ‘unlawful’ images are still held on the database, with the government still investigating ways to purge them from the system.