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South Wales police to use facial recognition apps on phones
Force testing app that lets officers run snapshot through 'watchlist' to identify suspects
South Wales police intends to test the app over the next three months with 50 officers using the tech to identify people of interest Photograph: Paul Quayle/Alamy Stock Photo
South Wales police are to have a facial recognition app installed on their phones to identify suspects without having to take them to a police station.
The force intends to test the app over the next three months with 50 officers using the technology to confirm the names of people of interest who are stopped on routine patrols.
The app will allow officers to run a snapshot of a person through a database of suspects called a watchlist, and find potential matches even if the individual gives false or misleading information.
The move is the latest sign that police forces in Britain are eager to embrace the controversial technology which has been criticised for infringing privacy and increasing state powers of surveillance.
Liberty, the campaign group, called the announcement "chilling", adding that it was "shameful" that South Wales police had chosen to press ahead with handheld facial recognition systems even as it faced a court challenge over the technology.
In May, Liberty brought a legal case against the force for its recent use of automated facial recognition on city streets, at music festivals, and at football and rugby matches.
Police trials of facial recognition backed by home secretary
South Wales police said the technology would secure quicker arrests and enable officers to resolve cases of mistaken identity without the need for a trip to a station or custody suite. The officers testing the app would be under "careful supervision", it said in a statement.
This new app means that, with a single photo, officers can easily and quickly answer the question of "are you really the person we are looking for?", said deputy chief constable Richard Lewis. "When dealing with a person of interest during their patrols in our communities officers will be able to access instant, actionable data, allowing to them to identify whether the person stopped is, or is not, the person they need to speak to, without having to return to a police station."
He added that officers would only use the technology when it was "both necessary and proportionate", and officers selected to test the app had received additional training.
But recent trials of the technology by the South Wales and Metropolitan police forces have highlighted serious concerns about its usage. In June a government watchdog warned that police deployments of the technology were "chaotic" with the police making up the rules of engagement as they went along. The technology was running ahead of laws that could prevent its misuse, it added.
In January, the Met fined a man who swore at officers when they challenged him for walking past a facial recognition camera with his face covered. Last month an independent review of the Met's trials found the technology was likely to break human rights laws.
Liberty has called for a complete ban on live facial recognition, which scans live video feeds of the public for the faces of suspects kept on a police watchlist. The technique has been banned in San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley. Somerville in Massachusetts and Oakland, California have followed suit.
"It is shameful that SWP are rolling out portable facial recognition technology to individual officers while their so-called "pilots" are being challenged by Liberty in court," said Hannah Couchman at Liberty. "This technology destroys our anonymity in public spaces, chilling our ability to take part in protests and increasing state control over every one of us."
She added: "Far less intrusive means have been used for decades by police to establish a person's identity where necessary. It's a gross abuse of power for SWP to roll out routine, on-the-spot, biometric checks, and especially in circumstances where a person isn't suspected of committing any crime at all. This technology is intrusive, unnecessary, and has no place on our streets."