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MSs concerned about police use of ‘hugely intrusive’ live facial recognition technology

MSs from across the political spectrum have raised concerns about the “hugely intrusive” use of “rights-abusing” live facial recognition technology by police.

South Wales Police has been deploying live facial recognition technology at events in Swansea, Merthyr Tydfil, Bridgend and Pontypridd throughout December.

In a letter to Derek Vaughan, the chief constable, the 11 MSs highlighted apprehension over the impact of the technology on the data and human rights of Welsh citizens.

The technology, which subjects every passer-by to biometric identity checks, is seen as a reversal of the principle that suspicion should precede surveillance.

Sarah Murphy, the Labour MS for Bridgend, who is leading the charge, said: “It’s disappointing to see South Wales Police ramp up deployments as we head into a new year.

“In my own community of Bridgend and Porthcawl, we’ve seen 12,196 people have their faces scanned for simply being out with their family ahead of Christmas.

“Whilst South Wales Police have said that this is to catch criminals, we’ve also seen them promote the operation on social media –  meaning they only need to dodge our town centre for a couple of days, before going back out.

“I’d much rather see the funding for this technology used to put more police on the street, protecting small and medium businesses in the lead up to Christmas, rather than policing people who have done nothing wrong.”

The letter is signed by politicians from all parties represented in the Senedd.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, live facial recognition technology disproportionally misidentifies women and people of colour at a higher rate.

Since the technology was first rolled out, the letter says, 90% of South Wales Police’s matches with the technology have been inaccurate.

To date, there has been no debate in the Senedd or the House of Commons on the use of live Facial recognition technology for policing purposes. 

Elsewhere, legislators in Europe and the United States have introduced legislation to restrict or pause use of the technology.

Madeleine Stone, from Big Brother Watch, a privacy campaigning organisation, said: “Live facial recognition technology is a hugely intrusive surveillance tool that is turning high streets and city centres across Wales into high-tech police line-ups.

“South Wales Police ramping up this rights-abusing tech without any public or parliamentary oversight is deeply worrying and means members of the public will be subject to passport-style identity checks as they go about their Christmas shopping.

“This reckless approach to face surveillance makes the UK a total outlier in the democratic world, and puts innocent citizens at risk of being wrongly flagged as criminals.”

In 2020, Ed Bridges, a civil liberties campaigner, joined forces with Liberty, winning a court case against South Wales Police about the use of facial recognition technology.

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MSs concerned about police use of ‘hugely intrusive’ live facial recognition technology

the debating chamber at the senedd
The debating chamber at The Senedd Credit: Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament)