Police fine man £90 after he covers his head to avoid facial recognition technology

People in a crowd being scanned by facial recognition cameras
Andrea Needham

The police have fined a man £90 after he covered his head with his jumper to avoid a police trial of facial recognition technology (FRT). Other people were stopped by police during the trial for trying to hide their faces to avoid the cameras.

The trial – the tenth of its kind by the Metropolitan Police – took place outside Romford station in east London. Observers from human rights groups Liberty and Big Brother Watch came to monitor what was happening. Big Brother Watch tweeted:

‘Not necessarily suspicious’

The Metropolitan Police had put out a statement before the Romford trial claiming that anyone who declined to have their face scanned would “not necessarily be viewed as suspicious”. But Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said:

He simply pulled up the top of his jumper over the bottom of his face, put his head down and walked past. There was nothing suspicious about him at all… you have the right to avoid [the cameras], you have the right to cover your face. I think he was exercising his rights.

Meanwhile, Liberty tweeted:

Liberty also showed how police using FRT can misidentify people:

For train travellers, it was impossible to avoid the cameras:

300 faces per second

FRT can theoretically scan up to 300 faces per second. Faces can then be matched to a “watch list” of photos in the police database, or even photos taken from elsewhere, such as social media.

A freedom of information request by the Independent revealed that the Metropolitan Police spent over £200,000 on FRT during the 2015/16 and 2017/18 financial years. No arrests were made as a result of the technology being used during that period.

Paint your face

According to Liberty, there is no law or Home Office policy covering the use of FRT. This, they say, allows individual police forces “to make it up as they go along.” Last year, Liberty even advised people attending anti-Trump protests to paint their faces in order to thwart any use of FRT by the police.

Legal challenges

There are two legal challenges happening against the use of FRT. Liberty is bringing a legal case against South Wales Police, which has made extensive use of FRT. At one football match in Cardiff in 2017, police using FRT  wrongly identified over 2,000 people as potential criminals. As The Canary previously reported, South Wales Police police also used FRT at a peaceful arms trade protest in Cardiff. Big Brother Watch claims that South Wales Police stores photos of people misidentified by FRT for a year.

Meanwhile, Big Brother Watch is taking legal action against the Met Police with Green Party peer Jenny Jones. It crowdfunded to bring the legal challenge. Carlo stated:

It is the public’s support that has allowed us to bring this legal challenge. We’re hoping the court will intervene, so the lawless use of facial recognition can be stopped. It is crucial our public freedoms are protected.”

Engaging with “stakeholders”

In relation to the Romford trial, detective chief superintendent Ivan Balhatchet, Scotland Yard’s lead for facial recognition, said:

The technology used in Romford forms part of the Met’s ongoing efforts to reduce crime in the area, with a specific focus on tackling violence. As with all previous deployments the technology was used overtly. We continue to engage with many different stakeholders, some who actively challenge our use of this technology.

It may be that a lot more ‘actively challenging’ by “stakeholders” – that means all of us – is going to be needed in order to stop this potentially unlawful, overbearing and discriminatory police surveillance.

Featured image via YouTube screenshot

Get involved

  • Support the crowdfunded legal cases being brought by Liberty and Big Brother Watch against facial recognition technology.

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