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Mike Gillespie

Public expects transparency and results

Discussing data protection and privacy rights has become extremely complex in the digital age and the range of systems and software available to police forces seems to grow every year.

The need for agile policing has never been greater and as forces deal with fewer officers and a complex political landscape to navigate, technology offers some great opportunities to realise that agility. The public expects transparency and results at the same time from its police forces and the use of certain technologies put watchdogs on alert and the police, once again, in the unflinching spotlight. Here, Advent IM Security Consultant, Michelle Horton gives her view on facial recognition technology in policing and the role of data protection in protecting the rights of the individual.

Some UK police forces have been trialling the new technology to use facial recognition by law enforcement in public spaces. Whilst I understand that new technology is being developed every minute of every day, I am wondering if this is the right way forward. The vision for the Metropolitan Police is to:

1. Make London the safest global city;
2. Be the best crimefighters, by any measure;
3. Earn the trust and confidence of every community;
4. Take pride in the quality of our service;
5. So that people love, respect and are proud of London’s Met.

Other forces, understandably will have a similar stated vision which will drive their policing decisions. Let’s use this one as framework to hang the questions on.

So what of technology? What part does technology play in supporting forces with the very real challenges of modern policing?

I believe facial recognition could help UK Police Forces achieve some of these goals and challenges. If facial recognition was used, any known criminal can be picked up walking around town and removed from our streets. Making our streets safer and giving our officers the time to do more crimefighting rather than spending days, weeks, months even years tracking down these known criminals. This supports points 1 and 2 of the vision.

However, how can we earn the trust and confidence of our communities if the system is flawed? To list the flaws, I can see:

1. There is a lack of oversight regarding the use of AFR, therefore with no clear oversight, there is no accountability. If no one is accountable, then quite frankly, no one cares. If no one cares, why would you put your trust and confidence in a police force that does not care about our data, and super personal data at that.

2. The strategy in place to look after the information collected is disappointing and is a “tick-list” exercise. I personally feel from experience that when something becomes a “tick-list” exercise that you really don’t look at the bigger picture to grasp an understanding of the “who, what, when, where and why” of information. The culture will never be changed if the challenge is to get that box ticked.

3. Even with the strategy containing the simple “tick-box” exercise, it was not being adhered to. There was little evidence that something as simple as a retention period was being exercised. Therefore, holding more information that was is deemed as a “need to know” and quite frankly, they wouldn’t know what information they hold, because its never reviewed. This also shows the poor understanding and goes back to point two in this list.

At present, there are ten million searchable facial images from people that have been held in custody previously, some of these images should have been deleted as per the retention period of six years, but as I mentioned this is not being adhered to. There are also images of people who have been held in custody and have never been charged with a crime. But once again, their images have not been deleted once they are no longer needed. Some of these images are duplicates and new criminals will be unrecognisable on the facial recognition system. Will this system make our forces “lazy” in the sense that only repeat offenders will be picked up and it is by chance we actually take the time to find new ones?

Then we have to think about the lawfulness of retaining these images. Despite a high court ruling in 2012 that keeping images of innocent people was unlawful, police forces have quietly continued to build up a massive database without any of the controls or privacy safeguards that apply to police DNA and fingerprint databases. The review, ordered by ministers in the wake of the high court ruling in 2012, found that more than 16m images had been enrolled in the facial recognition gallery on the police national database making it possible to search them using facial recognition technology. How would you feel if your photo was kept on a police file when you have been held in custody but never convicted of a crime?

There are potentially millions of custody images being held with no clear basis in law or justification for the ongoing retention. Police forces need to review their standard six year retention policy of these images, where it states that after 6 years, images should be removed if there was no good reason to keep them. However, it seems police forces have not been educated on this policy and show poor understanding of it, and there was little evidence reviews have been carried out to assess the retention of images that are six years old. Going back to the vision for the Met Police, this is not helping points three, four and five. If the forces are not reviewing and removing images as per their policies, how will this earn the trust and confidence of communities, and the fact it is not being done is not taking pride in their service, therefore how can people love, respect and be proud of the police force?

Some people are saying that facial recognition is a threat to our privacy as it scans deeply sensitive biometric data. This to me is not a threat, as we post so much information about ourselves on social media now, even Facebook has facial recognition, so I think the police using our biometric data is a much better use than Facebook making sure you are tagged in a picture that it recognises as you. I have the belief, if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about. If scanning my face means getting the people off the streets who keep stabbing people or killing people then who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Would I go as far to say that scanning innocent people’s faces could save lives in that sense? Yes, I would. If am I walking through a shopping centre, and to scan the murderers face behind me, you need to scan mine as well, I am very ok with that. All I am asking the police forces and any other government backed scheme that wants to scan my face, to keep my information safe. Protect it and look after it like your meant to. Help me to help you. It’s really quite simple.

This new technology is amazing, and overall, I am very much in favour of its deployment in police forces. However I think all the kinks need to be ironed out first such as retention policies and up-skilling the understanding of the police force. This technology shouldn’t be used right now, but I think it could and will do good things in the future, if we can just get it right.