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A U.K. Court May Have Made Police Use of Facial Recognition Easier

A landmark decision in a U.K. court case may make it easier for law enforcement agencies throughout Europe to use facial recognition technology.

In a legal challenge considered a world first, a 36-year old privacy campaigner named Ed Bridges contested the legality of South Wales Police processing his image using automated facial recognition software. He was joined by civil liberties groups in arguing that the police use of the technology violated both U.K. and European human rights and data privacy laws.

In dismissing Bridges' case, a U.K. High Court ruled that automated facial recognition did impact an individuals' privacy rights and involved processing of sensitive personal information that fell under the U.K.'s data protection rules. But in a sweeping judgment, the judges said the police had "clear and sufficient" authority under existing laws to use the technology in a public area to search for people on a police watch list.

The court went even further in saying that police use of facial recognition "has considerable benefits in terms of saving resources that are currently deployed in searching for individuals, resources which in the future could otherwise be deployed in other ways to prevent crime and protect the public."

The decision could have wide implications, since few courts anywhere have yet had a chance to rule on the technology, which is quickly being adopted in many parts of the world. In the U.K., three police departments—in South Wales, Leicestershire, and London—have experimented with using it in public spaces. A company working to develop the Kings Cross area of London recently abandoned plans to deploy the technology in a project there following a public outcry after plans leaked to the press.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., at least five large police departments—including those in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles—have either run real-time facial recognition, purchased software for it, or wish to do so, according to a 2016 study from Georgetown University. And in China, both the national and local governments have made widespread use of facial recognition in policing and to crack down on political protest. Companies that have sold this technology to the Chinese authorities, including soon-to-be-public Megvii, Hikvision, and SenseTime, are also actively marketing the systems to international customers, including police departments, militaries, and governments.

The U.K. case is likely to have the biggest impact in the European Union. While Britain is still part of the EU, the rulings of its courts can be used a precedents for courts elsewhere in the bloc. And Bridges, the privacy campaigner, made EU human rights and data protection laws a centerpiece of his arguments against the South Wales Police—positions that the British court largely rejected in its decision.

Fiona Barton, a barrister with 5 Essex Court, the chambers that represented the South Wales police in the case, said the judges' decision was a "very important" precedent with implications for a broad range of public and private entities that wanted to use automated facial recognition (AFR). But she warned that it "should not be taken as a green light to go ahead with the use of AFR in all and any circumstances." She said the case hinged on the specific legal framework the South Wales Police had in place. "It is not a matter of one size fits all," she said.

Bridges said he would appeal the decision. 'This sinister technology undermines our privacy and I will continue to fight against its unlawful use to ensure our rights are protected and we are free from disproportionate government surveillance," he said in a statement.

Megan Goulding, a lawyer for privacy rights group Liberty, called the judges' decision "disappointing," adding that it did "not reflect the very serious threat that facial recognition poses to our rights and freedoms." She called on the government to step in and ban the technology.

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