Activist loses world’s first court challenge over facial recognition technology

An activist has lost the world’s first legal challenge over police use of facial recognition technology.

Ed Bridges, 36, from Cardiff, brought the challenge at the High Court after claiming his face was scanned while doing Christmas shopping in 2017 and at a peaceful anti-arms protest in 2018.

His lawyers argued the use of automatic facial recognition (AFR) by South Wales Police caused him “distress” and violated his privacy and data protection rights by processing an image taken of him in public.

But his case was dismissed on Wednesday by two leading judges, who said the use of the technology was not unlawful.

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, sitting with Mr Justice Swift, said: “We are satisfied both that the current legal regime is adequate to ensure appropriate and non-arbitrary use of AFR Locate, and that South Wales Police’s use to date of AFR Locate has been consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and the data protection legislation.

The judges said they were told by lawyers during a three-day hearing in May that Mr Bridges’ case was the first time any court in the world had considered the use of AFR.

At the start of the ruling, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said: “The algorithms of the law must keep pace with new and emerging technologies.

“The central issue is whether the current legal regime in the United Kingdom is adequate to ensure the appropriate and non-arbitrary use of AFR in a free and civilised society.

“At the heart of this case lies a dispute about the privacy and data protection implications of AFR.

“Counsel inform us that this is the first time that any court in the world had considered AFR.”

The decision was relayed over video link from the High Court in London to the High Court in Cardiff, where the case was heard.

Mr Bridges crowdfunded his legal action against the force and was represented by civil rights campaign group Liberty.

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 conducting a trial of the technology since 2017, with a view to it being rolled out nationally, and is considered the national lead force on its use.

The trial comprises two pilot projects, AFR Locate and AFR Identify, and the force has used the technology 50 times to date.

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