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Briefing paper

Facial recognition technology is among the most controversial data-driven innovations in use today. Advocates claim that it could make our streets safer, our bank accounts more secure, and our public services more accessible. Critics argue that it poses a threat to privacy and other civil liberties. This paper attempts to bring clarity to this debate, putting claims under scrutiny and helping readers understand where to direct their attention. It seeks to answer several fundamental questions about FRT systems, including how they are developed, where they have been deployed to date, and the mechanisms by which they are governed.

The paper’s findings are informed by interviews with experts from across civil society, academia, industry, law enforcement and government.

Key findings:

  • FRT can be used for varied purposes. Some systems aim to verify people’s identity (e.g. to unlock an electronic device), while others seek to identify individuals (e.g. by scanning a group of people to see if any are featured on a watch list).
  • FRT systems have been deployed across the public and private sectors. Several police forces have trialled live FRT, while banks have installed FRT functionality within apps to improve customer experience.
  • Used responsibly, FRT has the potential to enhance efficiency and security across many contexts. However, the technology also presents several risks, including to privacy and the fair treatment of individuals.
  • The extent to which an FRT system is beneficial or detrimental to society depends on the context, as well as the accuracy and biases of the specific algorithm deployed. Each use must be assessed according to its own merits and risks.
  • The use of FRT is regulated by several laws, including the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act (for public sector applications). However, a standalone code of practice for FRT has yet to be drawn up.
  • The regulatory regime governing the use of FRT in the private sector is less extensive than the one for public law enforcement. Policymakers should consider whether there is sufficient oversight of FRT in contexts such as retail and private property developments.
Publication Details
Access Rights Type: