I welcome the recent publication of the Big Brother Watch report, concerning face identification technology, as in my view it adds value to a much needed debate on a matter of growing public interest. The public interest demands clear legislation, transparency in governance and approach and a coherent, ethical and effective regulatory framework .It also demands that the public can derive confidence whenever and wherever their civil liberties are at risk from the state. I shall of course consider the report carefully.
Energising debate in respect of the effective regulation of use of face identification technology (commonly referred to as Automated Face Recognition or AFR) by the police is a priority of the National Surveillance Camera Strategy and a matter which I have been addressing as a priority for some time now, engaging with the National Police Chief’s Council, the Home Office, fellow regulators and Ministers alike. Many of you will have followed the Question Time debate I held as part of my Citizen Engagement Strand. The debate took place in February at the London School of Economics and generated a huge amount of interest -needless to say facial identification technology was a key issue.
The police have to abide by the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice which I regulate under the terms of Section 33(1) Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. Those familiar with the content of the Code will know that it is explicit in that face identification technologies used by the police in England and Wales will be regulated by it. The police also have obligations under current and future Data Protection regulations. Do I consider existing or indeed anticipated data protection legislation as being wholly sufficient to regulate these matters? I do not.
I am delighted that my fellow regulators, the Biometrics Commissioner and more recently the Information Commissioner have added their voices to the debate. It is important that regulators, not just law makers, get their approach right to this important topic.
I do think that the police are genuinely doing their best with AFR and to work within the current and anticipated legal statutory and regulatory framework. The framework governing overt surveillance conducted by relevant authorities is less clear, falls across a number of regulatory interests and is far less robust than that which governs covert surveillance in my view. Yet arguably the evolving technological capabilities of overt surveillance is the equal in terms of intrusion of citizens rights to that which is conducted covertly. It is inescapable that AFR capabilities can be an aid to public safety particularly from terrorist threats in crowded or highly populated places. Andrew Parker, the DG of the Security Service rather eloquently set out the threat context to our society only recently. It is understandable that there is an appetite within law enforcement agencies to exploit face identification capabilities, an appetite which is doubtlessly borne out of a duty and determination to keep us safe. This technology already exist in society for our convenience and therefore it is at least arguable that the public will have something of an expectation that those technologies are so used by agents of the state to keep us safe from serious threats, but, and this is a significant but, only in justifiable circumstances where their use is lawful, ethical, proportionate and transparent.
In the context of safety, the public also need to be safe from disproportionate and illegitimate state intrusion, and must have confidence that those technologies have integrity. In my view, the challenge is arriving at a balance and for that to happen there need to be a clear framework of legitimacy and transparency which guides the state, holds it to account and delivers confidence and security amongst the public. I don’t believe we are there yet. I don’t believe that new data protection legislation or regulation in isolation takes us all the way there either. I have yet to have confidence that Government has a satisfactory approach to the issue upon which the police and others can rely and upon which the public can have confidence, but I do believe that we are on a journey to that destination and one which is fuelled by constructive challenging debate.
It is with that in mind that I have invited representatives of the police, manufacturers, civil liberty groups, the Home Office and representatives of my fellow regulators to my Advisory Council next week to further debate and understand those key issues and perspectives where the public interest would be best served by further action.
The Commissioner is available for media interview and contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org