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Privacy groups fight back after judge deems police facial recognition lawful

Privacy campaigners have vowed to push for a nationwide ban on automated facial recognition (AFR) software after judges ruled that police could use the technology lawfully.

Cardiff High Court ruled on Wednesday (4 September) that South Wales Police was justified in rolling out AFR across the Welsh capital in 2017 and had complied with data protection and human rights laws.

Ed Bridges, a local resident and former Liberal Democrat councillor, took the force to court in May after claiming he had been unlawfully surveilled by police in 2017 and 2018.

After reviewing the evidence from a three day court case, Lord Justice Haddon Cave ruled: “We are satisfied both that the current legal regime is adequate to ensure appropriate and non-arbitrary use of AFR Locate, and that South Wales police’s use to date of AFR Locate has been consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and the data protection legislation.”

Megan Goulding, a lawyer at Liberty, which supported the legal challenge, described the judgement as disappointing, saying it did “not reflect the very serious threat that facial recognition poses to our rights and freedoms.

“It is time that the government recognised the danger this dystopian technology presents to our democratic values and banned its use. Facial recognition has no place on our streets.”

Big Brother Watch also called for a ban and threatened to take the Metropolitan Police to court if it uses live facial recognition surveillance again.

“Today’s judgment acknowledges that live facial recognition surveillance by South Wales Police interferes with the public’s privacy rights but contends that its use, even to monitor peaceful protesters, is lawful,” said Big Brother Watch’s director Silkie Carlo in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said the watchdog would review the judgment carefully: “We welcome the court’s finding that the police use of Live Facial Recognition (LFR) systems involves the processing of sensitive personal data of members of the public, requiring compliance with the Data Protection Act 2018. This new and intrusive technology has the potential, if used without the right privacy safeguards, to undermine rather than enhance confidence in the police.”

The ruling is believed to be the first to be made by any court in the world. Bridges intends to appeal the decision.