Activist to appeal ruling over police use of facial recognition technology

An activist has vowed to continue his legal fight after losing the world’s first court challenge over police use of facial recognition technology.

Ed Bridges, 36, from Cardiff, brought a High Court challenge 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.

In a statement after the ruling, Mr Bridges said he will appeal the court’s decision.

He added: “South Wales Police has been using facial recognition indiscriminately against thousands of innocent people, without our knowledge or consent.

“This sinister technology undermines our privacy and I will continue to fight against its unlawful use to ensure our rights are protected and we are free from disproportionate Government surveillance.”

South Wales Police Chief Constable Matt Jukes said: “I recognise that the use of AI and face-matching technologies around the world is of great interest and, at times, concern.

“So, I’m pleased that the court has recognised the responsibility that South Wales Police has shown in our programme.

“With the benefit of this judgment, we will continue to explore how to ensure the ongoing fairness and transparency of our approach.

“There is, and should be, a political and public debate about wider questions of privacy and security.

“It would be wrong in principle for the police to set the bounds of our use of new technology for ourselves.

“So, this decision is welcome but, of course, not the end of the wider debate.

“I hope policing will be supported by that continuing in an informed way with bodies such as Liberty who brought this action and Government each playing their valuable role.”

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Mr Justice Swift said they were told by lawyers during a three-day hearing that Mr Bridges’ case was the first time any court in the world had considered the use of AFR.

The judges concluded that they were “satisfied” the current legal regime is adequate to “ensure appropriate and non-arbitrary use of AFR” and that the force’s use to date of the technology has been “consistent” with human rights and data protection laws.

In his opening remarks, 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.

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

Mr Bridges crowdfunded his legal action against the force and was represented by civil rights organisation Liberty, which is campaigning for a ban on the technology.

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said after the ruling: “This disappointing judgment does not reflect the very serious threat that facial recognition poses to our rights and freedoms.

“Facial recognition is a highly intrusive surveillance technology that allows the police to monitor and track us all.

“It is time that the Government recognised the danger this dystopian technology presents to our democratic values and banned its use. Facial recognition has no place on our streets.”

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, scanning around 500,000 faces.

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