Police 'hamstrung' over facial recognition tech, says Met chief

Damien Gayle
Cressida Dick: ‘We are finding ourselves quite hamstrung by a quite complex regulatory system, a quite complex legal framework.’ Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Police attempts to exploit controversial surveillance measures including facial recognition CCTV are being hamstrung by a complex regulatory system and legal framework, the Metropolitan police commissioner has said.

Thanks to the wealth of communications, biometrics and other electronic data now available, Cressida Dick said investigations now hardly relied on witnesses and confessions. But she said she felt officers were not working in a particularly enabling environment when it came to their use.

Speaking after five murders took place in six days on the streets of London, Dick said her force had endured “the most terrible week”. But she said the Met had been hung out to dry by Theresa May, who, when home secretary, made life quite difficult for the force as it has refocused its work into high-tech digital investigations.

“We are finding ourselves quite hamstrung by a quite complex regulatory system, a quite complex legal framework,” while “bad guys” were getting up to speed with technology, Dick told the Telegraph.

She was reported as saying she was keen to press ahead with greater use of facial recognition. “I am very keen that the law keeps up with the technology and I don’t feel that we are working in a tremendously enabling environment at the moment,” Dick said.

The use of facial recognition CCTV has drawn sharp criticism from civil rights groups. Big Brother Watch published a report earlier this year claiming that it had picked the wrong person nine times out of 10, but said that if perfected the technology had the potential to turn innocent British citizens into “walking ID cards”.

The organisation is now taking the Metropolitan police to court over its use of facial recognition CCTV. Its director, Silkie Carlo, said that, contrary to Dick’s comments, the Home Office had in fact invested millions in police use of facial technology.

Carlo said: “I totally agree that the Home Office has failed to provide leadership on technologies and policing. But in reality, the political abandonment has left police dangerously unleashed rather than hamstrung.

“The Met has charged ahead using live facial recognition surveillance without a legal basis, introducing ever more authoritarian surveillance with no political supervision.”