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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ruivivar

Balancing AI Facial Recognition and UK Privacy

📸 ModelProp / Midjourney

The UK's use of AI facial recognition technology in policing has been a hot topic for privacy campaigners.

The recent Criminal Justice Bill, which could allow police to search millions of driving licence holders using this technology, has intensified the debate. Despite the public safety benefits, concerns about misidentification, privacy invasion, and surveillance persist.

Facial recognition technology uses AI to compare an individual's facial features with existing records. Its use in policing is driven by its potential to enhance public safety. For instance, the Metropolitan Police's data shows that between 2020 and 2023, 34 people were apprehended through live facial recognition.

However, the technology is known to misidentify individuals, particularly women of colour. Big Brother Watch claims that Met and South Wales police facial recognition systems have been over 89% inaccurate between 2016 and 2023.

The technology's accuracy is expected to improve over time, but its potential harms are dependent on how it is used. To date, there has not been a single reported case of wrongful arrest due to facial recognition in the UK, contrasting with several incidents in the US.

Campaigners argue that facial recognition violates privacy rights, labelling it as "dangerously authoritarian". However, its use is governed by existing privacy law, which allows necessary and proportionate interference with the right to privacy for valid reasons, including law enforcement.

The use of facial recognition technology is not without precedent. During the 1980s and 90s, European countries resisted CCTV cameras due to privacy concerns. Today, the UK is estimated to have 5 million surveillance cameras, with London alone housing 942,000 of them.

Despite the concerns, facial recognition already enjoys some public support. In a 2022 survey by the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Alan Turing Institute, 86% of participants believed that the police's use of the technology is beneficial.

While some safeguards exist within UK law to tackle the disproportionate use of technology, there remain loopholes. For example, there are currently no rules restricting the use of live facial recognition in investigating minor crimes.

The focus should be on urging policymakers to adopt a nuanced approach that allows society to reap the benefits of facial recognition technology whilst mitigating its risks.

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