The South Wales Police has announced that it is embarking on a trial of facial recognition technology to help officers identify crime suspects or vulnerable people.

During the three-month trial of the technology, a facial recognition app will installed on officers’ phones to help identify whether someone is a “person of interest”.

The 50 officers involved in the trial will be able to analyse an image through the app, with the facial recognition technology able to identify whether a person, such as someone who is wanted for a crime, matches with images on a database. This can be done instantly, forgoing the need for the individual to be taken to a police station before being identified.

Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis has said that officers will “only be using the new technology in instances where it is both necessary and proportionate to do so” and will receive additional training and close monitoring.

A controversial policing tool

According to The Guardian, Three UK forces have deployed facial recognition technology since June 2015: the Metropolitan, Leicestershire and South Wales police.

Although biometrics may be a useful tool in identifying those who have committed crimes, there are also fears that the technology could be used to carry out surveillance on the wider population.

However, the accuracy and ethics of the technology has been called into question. According to a study carried out by the University of Essex, four out of five suspects identified by the technology were not wanted by the police.

Civil rights organisation Liberty has criticised the use of facial recognition by UK police forces, claiming that “police spying” infringes the public’s right to privacy and could lead to certain groups being unfairly targeted or discriminated against.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Cardiff resident Ed Bridges was taking legal action against South Wales Police after he claims his privacy was violated when he was captured by facial recognition.

Police and Crime Commissioner Alun Michael addressed the “ethical and social concerns that have been expressed over the use of facial recognition technology” saying that “people want to know that members of the public who have done nothing wrong are not being subjected to inappropriate surveillance and their privacy and anonymity will be respected and protected.”

“Privacy concerns need to be prioritised”

Jason Tooley, board member of techUK and chief revenue officer at Veridium believes that the technology has its benefits in policing:

“As police forces recognise that technology innovation for officers can drive improved policing, there is clearly a need to focus on how the technology can be adopted quickly and how public acceptance for this technology can be increased.

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“The use of biometrics can support identity verification on-demand and at scale as has been proven in many other countries where officers currently use consumerised technology.”

However, he believes that privacy concerns must be addressed and prioritised:

“As part of a wider digital policing initiative, it is imperative for police forces to take a strategic approach as they trial biometric technologies, and not prematurely focus on a single biometric approach. This strategy would take advantage of other biometric techniques such as digital fingerprinting which ensure a higher level of public consent due to the maturity of fingerprints as an identity verification technique.

“It’s clear that alleviating privacy concerns need to be prioritised by the police within the overall strategy for using technology in this area. The public need to be able to see the value of the technology innovation through results in order to advance consent and acceptance by citizens.

“With the rapid rate of innovation in the field, a multi-modal biometric strategy that allows the police to use the right biometric techniques for the right scenario will accelerate the benefits associated with digital policing.”