The deployment of facial recognition cameras across England and Wales remains controversial, with the court of appeal last year ruling that the way South Wales Police was using them was unlawful

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The Home Office and police have been accused of bypassing Parliamentary debate on the rollout of facial recognition by quietly sanctioning its widespread use in new guidance. 

In an open letter, shared exclusively with The Telegraph, 31 organisations say the new guidance allowing police, local councils and enforcement agencies to deploy face recognition cameras across England and Wales ignores court rulings against “invasive” filming.

A former government-appointed watchdog responsible for policing CCTV cameras has also warned that the guidance fails to spell out safeguards to protect the public from intrusive surveillance by police.

Facial recognition technology maps faces in crowds based on the coordinates of features like a nose, eyes and mouth and compares them to images of people on a watchlist of suspects, missing people, and other persons of interest to the police. 

If there is a match, officers are automatically alerted.

Quietly publishing guidance

The new guidance was quietly published last week by the College of Policing during the Parliamentary recess and without any announcement by it or the Government.

The 30 organisations including Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty said: “In a democratic society, it is imperative that intrusive technologies are subject to effective scrutiny.

“Police and the Home Office have, so far, completely bypassed Parliament on the matter of live facial recognition technology (LFRT).

“We are not aware of any intention to subject LFRT plans to parliamentary consideration, despite the intrusiveness of this technology, its highly controversial use over a number of years, and the dangers associated with its use.”

They said it also flies in the face of a call by the all-party science and technology committee for the use of the cameras to be suspended until a legal framework is set out and agreed. The 30 groups have called for the use of the facial recognition cameras to be halted.

Facial Recognition: The letter in full

Tested in court

The guidance follows a court of appeal ruling that the use of facial recognition cameras by South Wales as a pilot scheme, before rolling them out nationwide, breached privacy rights and broke equalities law.

The case was brought by Ed Bridges, a civil liberties campaigner, who had argued that the capturing of thousands of faces by the Welsh force was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

On two key counts the court found Mr Bridges’ right to privacy under Article 8 of the European convention on human rights had been breached, and on another it found that the force failed to properly investigate whether the software exhibited any race or gender bias. 

The guidance said deployment of the cameras should take into account any potential adverse impact on protected groups, be justified and proportionate and any unused biometric data should be quickly deleted.

However, the campaign groups said it failed to set out any specific protections against the identified breaches and allowed intelligence gathering and use of people’s social media images.

Tony Porter, the former Surveillance Camera Commissioner, who drafted a 72-page set of guidelines, said the College’s re-draft was simply the “bare bones” and “de minimis”, a legal term describing something too small to merit consideration.

"I don’t think it provides much guidance to law enforcement, I don’t really it provides a great deal of guidance to the public as to how the technology will be deployed,"he said.