Facial recognition technology is all around us. It’s how many of us unlock our phones. It greets us in the airport when we get home from a holiday. It puts a little box around the faces of our loved ones when we post a picture on social media.
But these aren’t the only places. For several years now, Cardiff residents like Ed Bridges, 37, have also found it on their streets in the hands of South Wales Police.
In a historic judgement handed down by the Court of Appeal this week, this use of facial recognition technology by South Wales Police was found to breach privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws.
Thanks to this case and the tireless work of campaigners, we’re a step closer to getting this oppressive tech banned.
The case – a world first – was brought by Bridges after he was scanned twice by the South Wales Police’s cameras. The judgement handed down yesterday means the force, which is leading the use of facial recognition on UK streets, must halt its long-running trial.
A crucial finding by the court is that it is unlawful for the police to use facial recognition to find anyone they choose (including people supposedly of "intelligence interest", who are not wanted for any wrongdoing) – or to simply use the tech wherever they like on our streets. This means that whatever steps the police take next, they cannot use this tech in the way they were.
The court also found that South Wales Police acted unlawfully by not investigating whether their tech discriminates – for example, against people of colour. This is a victory for anyone working in racial justice and sheds an important light on discriminatory policing techniques.
Above all, this case makes clear that the government must now recognise the serious dangers of this tech and that a ban is really the only rights-respecting way forward.
Like most technology, facial recognition has crept into our lives almost unnoticed. But move beyond the debates about unlocking mobile phones while wearing a face mask, and you will find a dystopian technology that threatens everything we understand about freedom.
In the hands of the state or private companies, it promises to permanently alter the way we live.
Facial recognition cameras work by scanning our faces, mapping them to create a code that is unique to us, like a fingerprint. This scan is then compared to faces on a watch list. To build a watchlist, police can take pictures from anywhere, including social media. There’s no limit to who might be on a watch list, and police have used the technology to look for people not wanted for an offence.
In this way, facial recognition gives state powers unprecedented access to information about us, where we go, who we socialise with and what we’re doing day-to-day. This kind of intensive surveillance not only eviscerates any notion of privacy but poisons our democracy.
Bridges was first scanned by South Wales Police’s cameras a few days before Christmas in 2017, when he had popped out on his lunch break. The following year he was scanned again at a peaceful protest about the Cardiff Arms Fair.
In total, the force has deployed its cameras about 70 times and regularly uses it on crowds at major public events. This is a problem because, like Bridges, we should all be able to attend a protest or go about our daily life without being watched in real-time by the state.
For many, the consequences are more serious still. This intrusive surveillance is being used, in many cases inaccurately, against people who are already over-policed, such as people of colour. Privacy is also a fundamental right and a precious refuge. If you’re trying to escape an abusive home, for example, you need to know you can’t be found – that is a right this tech fundamentally undermines.
Facial recognition technology goes far beyond traditional CCTV. By snatching our unique data and running it through complicated algorithms, the state could track where you go and who with whenever you are in a public space.
When we’re watched, we’re controlled. We're beginning to self-censor in public spaces and it is limiting our freedom.
The implications of today’s ruling stretch far beyond South Wales Police. The Metropolitan Police began using facial recognition in 2017 and announced a mass roll out at the start of this year. This was despite an independent review of its trials finding the technology may be unlawful for similar reasons to those Bridges, supported by civil liberties organisation Liberty, argued in the case, which I also worked on. This judgement sends a loud message that the state must stop using this tech for good.
But the loudest message of all from Tuesday's judgement lands squarely at the feet of the government. To protect individual and collective freedom for generations to come, we need a complete ban.
Unless that happens, facial recognition will lay the foundations of a society where all of us will have nowhere to hide and everything to fear.
Hannah Couchman is a policy and campaigns officer for Liberty and a specialist in surveillance tech