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Facial Recognition - What is the law?

View profile for David Rogerson
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In July this year, the Co-operative convenience store chain was found to be using facial recognition technology across stores in the south of England, leading to complaints being filed to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), who regulate the privacy laws in the UK.

The chain’s use of facial recognition, a type of biometrics, to blacklist customers without them knowing has raised questions about the use of biometric technology in the UK, and what the laws and regulations surrounding its use currently are. In this article, we look at the use of facial recognition technology in the UK and what the law currently is surrounding its use.

What is facial recognition being used for?

According to campaigners in the UK, the Co-op are using facial recognition across 35 stores to allow staff to create a blacklist of customers who have engaged in crime, including violent customers known for threatening staff. This system will then alert staff members across the area if a blacklisted customer enters any store without the customer knowing their information has been stored on this system.

Campaigners are arguing this is a serious breach of data protection laws as customers are not informed if their data is stored. Further to this, they believe the technology used in facial recognition is not free from bias, leading to customers being unfairly targeted.

Is biometric technology currently used elsewhere in the UK?

Biometric technology, on the whole, is not new in the UK, with it being an umbrella term for any biological identification, including fingerprints and DNA. However, the use of facial recognition technology is more recent.

Police use of facial recognition

The technology has previously been used in the UK, with the Met Police facing criticism in 2019 for using live facial recognition cameras to match those walking by with a wanted person list. Since then, police have used facial recognition to detect and prevent crime, including identifying those who are believed to have given the police the wrong personal information or at crowded events.

Facial recognition in schools

The technology has its uses beyond crime,  however, with schools across the UK implementing facial recognition technology to take payments for lunches. Schools that decided to use this method of payment for lunches had permission from the parents and children involved, and they decided on facial recognition payments to minimise Covid-19 risks.

So, what is the law?

Ultimately, there is no specific law in the UK about the use of facial recognition. It has been argued that its use is against Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to a private and family life, but no specific facial recognition law exists in the UK.

However, that is not to say this won’t change in the future. There have been calls for a ban on facial recognition being used until legislation is created surrounding biometrics, with an independent review calling for the use of biometrics to be reviewed in relation to crime and daily use. As their use becomes more widespread, as seen through the Co-op’s use, we can only expect that more focused legislation will quickly be the focus. 

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Web site content note:  This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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