In a concerning development, Police Scotland has significantly increased its utilization of a contentious form of facial recognition technology over the past five years, prompting worries about potential wrongful identifications of suspects. The surge in the use of retrospective facial recognition has raised alarms, with experts and activists calling for a reassessment of its deployment and the need for stronger safeguards.
Escalating use of facial recognition
According to data obtained through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, the use of retrospective facial recognition by Police Scotland has surged threefold in the last five years. This technology employs algorithms to identify individuals captured on camera at crime scenes by comparing their faces with millions of custody images stored on a UK-wide police database. Notably, Police Scotland’s use of the facial matching function jumped from just under 1300 searches in 2018 to nearly 4000 in 2022, positioning it as the fourth most prolific force in the UK for utilizing this technology.
Ethical concerns and biases
While Police Scotland views retrospective facial recognition as a valuable tool in identifying criminals, including those involved in child exploitation, concerns have been raised by campaigners and politicians. The technology has been known to produce “false positives,” leading to the wrongful identification of individuals. Additionally, studies have indicated biases in facial recognition algorithms, particularly against women and people of color.
Calls for suspension and review
Experts in the field, including those who have advised the Scottish Government on facial recognition, have called for a suspension of Police Scotland’s use of the technology until robust evidence can be provided to demonstrate its appropriateness, proportionality, and effectiveness. The fact that the police database includes images of individuals who were found innocent or later cleared at trial has fueled these concerns.
UK-wide escalation of searches
The escalation of searches involving facial recognition technology is not unique to Police Scotland. Home Office data reveals that the total number of searches conducted by all police forces in the UK has surged from 3360 in 2014 to 85,158 in 2022. Notably, the Metropolitan Police conducted nearly 30% of these searches last year.
Legal and privacy implications
The deployment of facial recognition technology raises significant legal and privacy concerns. In 2012, the High Court ruled against the Metropolitan Police for retaining images of individuals who were arrested but not further pursued. Despite subsequent regulations and commitments to delete images of innocent people, campaigners argue that many such images still linger in police databases.
Biometric commissioner’s perspective
The Scottish Biometrics Commissioner, Brian Plastow, while not expressing concerns about the number of searches, stressed the need for Police Scotland to enhance public trust and transparency by publishing relevant data. He also questioned the reliability of facial recognition software, highlighting its lack of validation or accreditation to recognized international scientific standards. Plastow is conducting a review of image retention on legacy systems, with the findings set to be reported to the Scottish Parliament in March 2024.
Calls for an outright ban
Amnesty International UK’s Patrick Corrigan has called for an outright ban on facial recognition technology, citing its potential to exacerbate systemic racism within policing. Corrigan contends that the increasing use of the technology contradicts Police Scotland’s commitment to operate as a rights-based organization.
The Scottish Government has indicated that the decision to use technology with facial recognition capabilities is an operational matter for Police Scotland.
Broader technological concerns
The rapid escalation of retrospective facial recognition usage by Police Scotland has ignited a larger debate about the acceptable limits of police technology. Experts and activists emphasize the need for public discussion to determine what constitutes appropriate, proportionate, and ethical use of such technology.
In a society where technology and surveillance continue to evolve, the debate surrounding facial recognition technology’s deployment and its implications for privacy and justice remains central to the discourse on policing and civil liberties. As concerns persist, it is clear that robust regulation and oversight are essential to strike a balance between effective law enforcement and safeguarding individual rights and privacy.