Bishop of St Albans asks for wider debate on use of facial recognition technology

On 1st March 2018 Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb led a debate in the House of Lords on her question to Her Majesty’s Government ‘what proposals they have for the use of facial recognition technology in security and policing.’ The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

 The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for this debate. My guess is that most of us see some very useful ways in which this technology can be used, but many people are also concerned that it may have other uses as well, which they are less keen on.  I speak as someone who has little knowledge of the actual technology, of modern-day policing or indeed of the complex legal issues involved, but I have taken the trouble to talk to a number of people over the last week to ask them of ​their awareness of this technology. I was very struck by the fact that hardly anybody I spoke to realised what was already going on. Some were horrified, some were puzzled and every one of them had questions and worries. As a minimum, we need to have the time—I hope that the Government will give much more time than a very limited short debate—to look at this important area, which touches on fundamental human freedoms, human rights and a whole range of issues about the sort of society we want and how we relate to one another.

In these sorts of debates, we often trade off fear. There is the trade-off fear of, “We’ve got terrorists coming, and therefore we’ve got to do something”, but if we take that line, everybody would be permanently tagged and we would all be linked up to computers and so on. None of us wants that. On the other side are people who have some real worries, which I think are justified by past evidence showing that sometimes when Governments and businesses collect data, they do not use it for the originally intended reasons. When I started talking with a number of people, those were the stories raised immediately: there was talk of Edward Snowden and of the collection of data by GCHQ and so on. This is the material that is kicking around. We have a duty to have a proper debate so that we start to understand and make conscious decisions on how we wish to collect and use information, so that we can plan for it rather than, as it appears at the moment, simply being overtaken by a lot of experiments.

We need this debate because as with, for example, many of those ethical issues that we debate in your Lordships’ House, we should not leave it just to the specialists and experts. This is a democratic issue about what it means to be a citizen—about what our rights but also our responsibilities are. How do we balance the state’s right to collect and use data? How do we balance the rights of businesses, when there are stories of plans being made so that, when we walk into shops, we will be identified so that we can be specifically targeted with certain sorts of products based on our customer profile? Do we want that sort of intrusion? We need to have that type of debate now.

I ask the Minister: when will Her Majesty’s Government create a proper space for us to have a more leisurely debate? Will the Government bring forward some sort of draft code, and indeed probably legislation, so we can begin to try to tease out how we want to use this technology? I totally concede the point, which has already been made, that in some senses we are already being overtaken by what is going on. When are we going to have an independent commissioner to look over this area, as we have commissioners for other areas, so that we can have the confidence that there is accountability is built into our national life?

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) [extract]….The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, highlighted the important role that these technologies play in the fight against terrorism, for the security services. I fully support the use of such technologies in that respect but, again, we should always ensure that they are used with the appropriate safeguards. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans set that point out in terms of the debate that we need.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con) [extract]… Automatic facial recognition, or AFR, is a rapidly evolving technology with huge potential, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and others powerfully illustrated. There have been some suggestions that there is no guidance on police use of AFR. The Home Office has published the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, which sets out the guiding principles for striking a balance between protecting the public and upholding civil liberties. The noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Evans, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans all pointed this out, as did others. Police forces are obliged under the Protection of Freedoms Act—POFA—to have regard to this code. Similarly, the Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a code of practice, which explains how data protection legislation applies to the use of surveillance cameras and promotes best practice.