The use of facial recognition by police forces has faced intense opposition. Britain's new biometrics commissioner explains why it 'makes no sense' to demonize the technology.

  • Britain’s biometrics commissioner Fraser Sampson says facial recognition must overcome biases.
  • The technology has faced intense criticism from activist groups for its poor accuracy in minorities.
  • Sampson said the technology is still “in its infancy” and that it will improve exponentially.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Demonizing the use of facial recognition in policing makes “no sense,” according to the UK’s newly-appointed biometrics commissioner, who says that criminals are “ruthlessly” exploiting new technologies at a much faster rate than any state agency.

Fraser Sampson, who was appointed to the role in March, said the technology was still in its infancy and that it had sizable shortcomings to reconcile, including in-built biases, and poor levels of accuracy.

However, in an interview with Insider, Sampson said that “demonizing” the technology itself “makes no sense to me” and that it will be up to the decision-makers to win the trust of the public.

Facial recognition “will simply have to overcome some of those early setbacks,” he said.

“Some of them are very, very real, and it’s quite right that the development stage should address issues such as in-built bias or wholly-unacceptable error rates, particularly when it’s around certain members of the community or members of protected groups,” he added.

Police forces around the world have begun using facial recognition, typically to scan the faces of crowds against a watchlist of wanted criminals. The technology has faced intense criticism for its underwhelming early performance.

In the US, there have been at least two cases where Black men have been arrested following inaccurate face scans for crimes they didn’t commit, according to the MIT Technology Review. Human rights groups have repeatedly stated that the technology has been used against marginalized communities around the world.

Facial recognition has faced sizable objections in the UK too where its use by the South Wales Police was ruled unlawful. In a case lodged by civil rights group Liberty and UK citizen Ed Bridges, the Court of Appeal ruled the force’s use of the technology breached privacy rights.

The biometrics commissioner, who has spent 40 years working in the criminal justice sector, including 19 years as a police officer, said that while facial-recognition technology is still in its infancy, there is “no question” that its reliability and accuracy would “increase exponentially.”

Sampson said he felt “quite strongly” that if police forces were to bring facial recognition to market and for it to be paid with taxpayer funds then they would “need to be able to demonstrate it will do no harm.”

“You’d have done all you can to eliminate any possibility of bias and that you will be open to constant review and refinement in the light of emerging evidence that says otherwise,” he said. “That’s more important than ever given its start.”

He also said there was a “lot more work to be done to address the legitimate concerns” that had arisen from the use of facial recognition technology.

Sampson said that camera systems would need to be designed to include prosopagnosia, a medical condition where people struggle to remember faces, for example. He said that such systems will need to be able to conduct immediate deletion of faces that are scanned and do not match with those found on a watch list.

The commissioner also said criminals have “ruthlessly” used all means of technology available to them to conduct prepared or organized crime. He added that the adoption of new technology by criminals has been far quicker than any state agency.

“There is a stark reality that says if this is technologically capable of being done, and there is a way of exploiting that for crime, then it will be done and exploited,” he said.

“Therefore, to that extent, it also makes no sense, denying the police and other big enforcement agencies access to certain types of technology.”

Sampson said insisting police forces use analog solutions due to a “lack of familiarity or a presence of mistrust” could not be a long-term solution.

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