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Public divided over police use of facial recognition - survey

The use of facial recognition technology by police and other law enforcement in the UK is proving divisive, with readers of GlobalData’s technology website Verdict weighing in about whether it infringed on their right to privacy.

The majority of readers said they were not happy with the use of facial recognition by police in a poll on Verdict that saw responses from 644 readers between January 24 and February 7. But the majority was slim. 

Some 53% said they were not happy with the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement, while 47% said they were happy with its use by such organisations.

“The response comes as the European Union is considering a ban on the use of facial recognition until the technology reaches a greater stage of maturity,” says Verdict technology editor Lucy Ingham.

A draft white paper, which was first published by the news website EURACTIV in January this year, revealed that a temporary ban was being considered by the European Commission.

It proposed that the use of facial recognition technology by private or public actors in public spaces would be prohibited for a definite period (e.g. 35 years).

This period would be used to ensure a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.

While this may seem extreme, particularly given facial recognition is already being used by police forces around Europe, there is a case for the technology not yet being mature enough for regular use, says GlobalData.

For example, an independent report on the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police to identify potential suspects found that it was inaccurate in 81% of cases, although the police claimed that the error rate was only 1 in 1000.

Since then, the Metropolitan Police has announced that it will now use the technology as part of routine operations.

This development was condemned by Silkie Carlo, director of the non-profit privacy campaign Big Brother Watch, who branded it an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the UK.

However, police forces maintain the technology prevents crime and does not breach privacy.

There have also been reports of issues with identifying people of colour, with tests by the US government finding that even the most accurate facial recognition technologies misidentify black people at a rate at least five times higher than for white people.