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Equality watchdog demands suspension of use of automated facial recognition and predictive algorithms in policing

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called for the suspension of the use of automated facial recognition (AFR) and predictive algorithms in policing in England and Wales, “until their impact has been independently scrutinised and laws are improved”.

In evidence submitted to the UN, the EHRC said:

  • It had concerns about how the use of AFR is regulated;
  • AFR may not comply with the UK’s obligation to respect privacy rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • There were questions about the technology’s accuracy;
  • Evidence suggested that many AFR algorithms disproportionately misidentified Black people and women, and therefore could be discriminatory.

The EHRC also expressed concerns over the use of predictive policing programmes, which use algorithms to analyse data and identify patterns, suggesting that such programmes could replicate and magnify discrimination in policing.

It said predictive technologies also relied on ‘big data’, which encompassed large amounts of personal information. The watchdog warned that this might infringe on privacy rights and result in self-censorship, “having a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association”.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “With new technology comes new opportunities and new, more effective ways of policing crimes and protecting UK citizens. We welcome this opportunity and recognise the priority that everyone is kept safe.  But these also bring new challenges and new risks which we need to meet in order to use any such technology effectively for the good of the community as a whole.

“It is essential that our laws keep pace with our evolving digital world so that new techniques to protect us don’t infringe on our rights in the process, and damaging patterns of discrimination, that we already know exist, are not reinforced."

She added: “The law is clearly on the back foot with invasive AFR and predictive policing technologies. It is essential that their use is suspended until robust, independent impact assessments and consultations can be carried out, so that we know exactly how this technology is being used and are reassured that our rights are being respected.”

The EHRC called for any decision to use such technologies to be based on the outcomes of independent impact assessments. Appropriate mitigating action must be taken, including the development of a rights-respecting legal and policy framework, it added.

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