The UK already has a pretty awful reputation when it comes to surveillance, what with millions of CCTV cameras, DRIPA and two recent attempts to shove the Snooper’s Charter through Parliament without scrutiny. So perhaps it should come as no surprise to discover that UK police forces have created a giant facial recognition database that includes hundreds of thousands of innocent people:
Police forces in England and Wales have uploaded up to 18 million “mugshots” to a facial recognition database — despite a court ruling it could be unlawful.
They include photos of people never charged, or others cleared of an offence, and were uploaded without Home Office approval, [the BBC’s] Newsnight has learned.
As BBC News notes, the photos of innocent people have been retained in contempt of an explicit order from the court to remove them:
It comes despite a ruling in 2012, when two people went to the High Court to force the Metropolitan Police to delete their photos from databases.
The judge warned forces should revise their policies in “months, not years”.
Also worrying is this belief in the database’s infallibility:
Andy Ramsay, identification manager at Leicestershire Police, told Newsnight the force now had a database with 100,000 custody photos.
He said searches of the database using facial recognition were 100% reliable in cases where there were clear images, and could be completed in seconds.
No non-trivial matching system is “100% reliable”: there are always false positives that make detection of criminals harder, not easier. There is a danger that the UK police will start using this supposed infallibility as an argument in itself: since our system never makes mistakes, if it says you are guilty, you must be guilty. And there is another important issue, articulated here by David Davis, a former Conservative minister:
“It’s quite understandable, police always want more powers, but I’m afraid the courts and parliament say there are limits,” he said.
“You cannot treat innocent people the same way you treat guilty people.”
What’s worrying is that UK police forces don’t seem to care what the courts say, as they strive to create their video surveillance database that does indeed treat everyone in exactly the same way: as potential criminals until the “100% reliable” system turns them into recognized criminals.