Landmark ruling on facial technology comes month after Meadowhall admitted using cameras

The High Court is to deliver a landmark ruling on the use of facial recognition technology by the police today.

By Claire Lewis
Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 10:56 am
Updated Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 4:48 pm
Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield
Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield

Ed Bridges, aged 36, from Cardiff, claims the use of the technology by South Wales Police caused him ‘distress’ and violated his privacy and data protection rights by processing an image taken of him in public.

He crowdfunded his action against the force after claiming his face was scanned while doing Christmas shopping in 2017 and at an anti-arms protest in 2018.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Read More

Read More
Largest ever haul of heroin – worth £120m – seized in UK

Mr Bridges' case, supported by human rights campaign group Liberty, is the first legal challenge in the UK against the use of automatic facial recognition (AFR).

Facial recognition technology maps faces in a crowd by measuring the distance between features then compares results with a ‘watch list’ of images, which can include suspects, missing people and persons of interest.

South Wales Police has been using the technology since 2017 and is considered the national lead force on its use.

Two senior judges will give their decision at the High Court in London today.

During a three-day hearing in May, Mr Bridges' lawyers told the High Court that the technology allowed the police to ‘monitor people's activity in public in a way they have never been able to do before,’ without having to gain consent or use force.

Dan Squires QC said: "The reason AFR represents such a step change is you are able to capture almost instantaneously the biometric data of thousands of people.

"It has profound consequences for privacy and data protection rights, and the legal framework which currently applies to the use of AFR by the police does not ensure those rights are sufficiently protected."

Mr Squires said Mr Bridges had a ‘reasonable expectation’ his face would not be scanned in a public space and processed without his consent while he was not suspected of wrongdoing.

He said there was no statutory power permitting South Wales Police to perform large-scale processing of people’s data without their consent and suggested a code of conduct be drawn up to regulate how police use AFR.

South Wales Police argued the use of AFR does not infringe the privacy or data protection rights of Mr Bridges as it is used in the same way as photographing a person's activities in public.

The force said it does not retain the data of those not on its watch list, although it does keep CCTV images from the scanning process for up to 31 days.

Jeremy Johnson QC, for the police force, told the court the use of AFR was justified as it deterred people from carrying out crime, is similar to police use of CCTV, and information of a person's face is not stored unless police already have the image of a known individual in their watch list.

Mr Johnson said at the hearing: "AFR is a further technology that potentially has great utility for the prevention of crime, the apprehension of offenders and the protection of the public."

He said the two uses of AFR where Mr Bridges claims his face was scanned were ‘justified’ and resulted in police successfully identifying three people.

He also said no personal information relating to Mr Bridges was shared with any police officer, he was not spoken to by police and the practical impact on him was ‘limited’.

Last month, it emerged that facial recognition technology was used at Meadowhall last year as part of a trial.

British Land, which owns Meadowhall, confirmed the use of the technology but said it is not used now.

In a statement, South Yorkshire Police said it was involved in the trial.

“Meadowhall advised us of their intention to undertake a trial using facial recognition technology,” the force said.

“We supported a four-week trial in order to develop a better understanding of opportunities associated with the use of this technology.”