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Landmark UK court ruling finds police use of facial recognition unlawful

A British court said on Tuesday that a police force’s use of facial recognition to hunt for suspects was unlawful, in a ruling that privacy campaigners hailed as a “major victory” in their fight against the surveillance technology.

In a case that judges described last year as the first of its kind globally, the Court of Appeal found that South Wales Police (SWP) – the first British force to adopt the technology – had breached privacy, data protection and equality regulations.

The appellant, Ed Bridges, a resident of the Welsh capital of Cardiff, lost an earlier case in September, when the High Court dismissed his claim that police breached his human rights by scanning his face without consent.

“The Court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties,” Megan Goulding, a lawyer for civil rights group Liberty, which represented Bridges, said in a statement.

“It is time for the Government to recognise the serious dangers of this intrusive technology. Facial recognition is a threat to our freedom – it needs to be banned.”

SWP said it would not appeal the judgment, but remained committed to the careful development and deployment of the technology.

“The whole aim of facial recognition technology is to keep the public safe and assist us in identifying offenders and protecting communities from individuals who pose a risk,” Deputy Chief Constable Jeremy Vaughan said in a statement.

“I believe the public will continue to support our use of all the available methods and technology to keep them safe, providing what we do is legitimate and proportionate.”

From malls to airports, facial recognition is increasingly pervasive worldwide, raising concerns over privacy and discrimination, with critics saying the technology is prone to errors and tends to misidentify ethnic minorities.

SWP has been trialling facial recognition since 2017, deploying cameras to check passersby against a database of offenders at dozens of locations, including football matches and rock concerts, according to its website.

An identified suspect can be stopped on the spot, while others are not identified and their data is discarded, it said.

SWP said the technology has resulted in 61 arrests including for robbery and theft, and for court warrants.

Bridges, a 37-year-old civil rights campaigner, said his face was scanned at an anti-arms protest and on a second occasion when he was Christmas shopping.

While the lower court said last year that the police’s action was lawful, Tuesday’s ruling upheld three out of five points that Bridges made in his appeal.

The court said the police were given too broad discretion, with no clear guidance on where the technology could be used and who could be put on a watchlist.

It also found that SWP failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain whether its software held racial or gender bias and that an impact assessment, required for processing sensitive data, was deficient.

Bridges said he was “delighted” by the ruling.

“We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance,” he said in a statement.

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