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Ministers ‘want facial recognition technology embedded in every day policing’

A facial recognition camera  (Press Association )
A facial recognition camera (Press Association )

Ministers are calling for facial recognition technology to be “embedded” in everyday policing, according to documents presented to the surveillance camera commissioner.

Until now, police use of live facial recognition in England and Wales has been limited to special operations such as football matches and public events such as the coronation.

However the possibility of linking the technology to the body-worn cameras officers use as they patrol streets could be under consideration, according to documents seen by the Guardian.

The government’s intentions were revealed in a paper produced for the surveillance camera commissioner Professor Fraser Sampson, discussing changes to the oversight of technology and surveillance.

It said: “This issue is made more pressing given the policing minister [Chris Philp] expressed his desire to embed facial recognition technology in policing and is considering what more the government can do to support the police on this. Such embedding is extremely likely to include exploring integration of this technology with police body-worn video.”

Professor Sampson, the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, told the Guardian the potential expansion was “very significant” and that “the Orwellian concerns of people, the ability of the state to watch every move, is very real”.

The document summarises a government-organised meeting held last month to discuss the technology.

Body-worn video was brought in to capture evidence, and interactions between officers and the public.

The small cameras can currently capture video in high definition and it is technically possible to link them to live facial recognition (LFR), a system that matches the biometrics of people’s faces against those held on a watchlist.

Sampson said: “A camera on an officer walking down the street could check the faces against a watchlist of suspects. They could check hundreds if not thousands of people while on duty.

“The technology will be capable of doing many things, not all of which the public would want. In China the algorithm can pick up ethnicity.

“It will be able to estimate age; some manufacturers claim it can estimate someone’s mood or state of anxiety.

A Home Office spokesperson said the government backed greater use of facial recognition.

They added: “The government is committed to empower the police to use new technologies like facial recognition in a fair and proportionate way. Facial recognition plays a crucial role in helping the police tackle serious offences including murder, knife crime, rape, child sexual exploitation and terrorism.”

Emmanuelle Andrews of Liberty, which opposes any use of LFR, said: “If the government is intent on rolling out Big Brother-style facial recognition technology, subjecting more and more people to this invasive practice, it infringes the right to go about our lives without being surveilled and monitored by the police.”

But Lindsey Chiswick, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for facial recognition, said: “With transparency, accountability and appropriate standards, we believe the use of emerging technology can help policing tackle crime and ultimately keep communities safe.”

The Met used LFR at the coronation resulting in one arrest from 68,000 faces scanned, figures show. Three sites were set up, with LFR cameras close to the Savoy and Bridge Street in Westminster, which scanned nearly 38,000 faces and produced no alerts against a list of 10,451 people police regarded as suspects.

An LFR camera set up in Piccadilly scanned 30,633 faces, produced two alerts, one of which led to an arrest and one of which led to no further action. The Met data claims there were no false alerts.