Police forces are pushing back against Home Office attempts to roll out facial recognition systems, dealing a harsh blow to government plans to introduce the controversial technology.
Kent Police and West Midlands Police were named by ministers in June as collaborating with the Home Office to trial the technology to trace “missing and vulnerable persons”. The announcement prompted concern that UK forces were eager to embrace a technology condemned for infringing privacy and increasing state surveillance.
However, Freedom of Information responses, seen by the Observer, reveal both forces are in fact fiercely resistant to piloting facial recognition and deny they agreed to help the Home Office trial the technology.
Hannah Couchman, policy and campaigns officer at human rights group Liberty, said: “These responses demonstrate how the Home Office has botched its attempt to make dangerous facial recognition technology seem more palatable by targeting missing or vulnerable persons – a well-worn tactic to justify a controversial new tool, and one which raises serious rights concerns.”
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch (BBW), which monitors the use of such technology, added: “There is now overwhelming pushback to live facial recognition surveillance.”
The development leaves South Wales Police as the only force in England and Wales currently spearheading Home Office-funded facial recognition trials.
The Welsh force announced recently it would install a facial recognition app on officers’ phones to identify suspects without needing to escort them to a police station.
The decision was taken despite South Wales Police facing a legal challenge from Liberty over its use of automated facial recognition on city streets, at music festivals and sporting events.
The Freedom of Information responses reveal Kent and West Midlands Police have no intention of following suit.
Kent’s response, dated 8 August, said it was “not currently using or trialling any form of facial recognition technology, and has no current plans to use any form of facial recognition technology”.
The reply from West Midlands, the second largest police force in England and Wales, serving a population of almost 2.8 million, confirmed it had “been approached to contribute to the trial, however, no commitment to contribute has been made”.
Ministers had also cited British Transport Police as working with the Home Office to pilot facial recognition software, but another FoI response reveals that they, too, remain unconvinced. The national force has only discussed laboratory-based trials using actors with the Home Office and no “decision has yet been made” to go ahead.
Couchman said the Home Office should heed the reluctance of police forces to use the technology. “Facial recognition is discriminatory and threatens our rights to privacy and free expression.”
She added: “Experts, civil society and MPs from across the political spectrum are alarmed at how the technology is spreading. It’s time for the Home Office to acknowledge these serious risks, abandon its bid to promote this dangerous technology and roll back police use of facial recognition.”
The first mention that Kent and West Midlands would be assisting the Home Office to roll out the technology surfaced in March, when the biometrics commissioner supplied evidence to MPs citing new trials.
The watchdog’s office subsequently told Liberty: “The Home Office police digital service is supporting operational pilots in police forces. In Kent and the West Midlands officers will use facial recognition in video for a limited period of time. Officers may use the technology where there is a risk of harm to the missing or vulnerable person.”
The pushback comes amid mounting opposition to the technology. On Friday BBW released a report warning of an “epidemic” of facial recognition use by private companies in shopping centres, museums, conference centres and other private spaces.
A day earlier, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham announced she was launching an investigation into the use of facial recognition in a new shopping development in Kings Cross, central London.
Last month, the parliamentary science and technology committee said authorities should cease trials of facial recognition technology until a legal framework was established.
The Metropolitan Police’s trial of the technology ended last month with the force now “considering all information available before coming to any decision on how the technology may be used in the future.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We support the police as they trial new technologies to keep the public safe, including facial recognition, which can help identify criminals and suspects.
“The government believes there is a legal framework for the use of live facial recognition technology. However, we support an open debate about this, to ensure that we maintain public trust and confidence in law enforcement.”