January 22, 2021


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Getting the balance right: Tony Porter discusses surveillance and civil liberties

Chris Price talks to former Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter about the balance between implementing surveillance camera technology and civil liberties, as well as his new role as Chief Privacy Officer of security solutions provider, Corsight AI.

Tony Porter, Chief Privacy Officer, Corsight AI

Appointed as Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) by the UK Government in March 2014 Tony Porter is an expert on, and passionate advocate for, facial recognition technology.

A retired senior police officer, Tony was a key contributor in the Bridges v South Wales Police Force court case, in which the High Court initially ruled in favour of the police’s use of LFR (Live Facial Recognition) technology before the decision was overturned in the Court of Appeal.

Following the court case he issued Facing The Camera, a comprehensive Government document providing guidance to police forces on the use of surveillance camera systems incorporating facial recognition technology and how they could best be used to locate persons on a watchlist.

Since leaving his post as SCC in December 2020, Tony Porter has taken up the role as Chief Privacy Officer (CPO) of Corsight AI. We caught up with Tony as he started his new role with the facial recognition solutions provider.


When did you first become aware of facial recognition?

The first time I came across the technology was when I became SCC at a security fair led by the Home Office. It was mainly Chinese companies that were demonstrating the technology back then and it was very poor grade. I remember not really knowing what to make of it and wondering back then whether it would ever really work!

You were due to leave your post as SCC early in 2020 weren’t you, why did you stay on longer?

Yes that’s right. I was initially due to retire in March 2020, but stayed on as we were on the cusp of the Bridges v South Wales Police LFR court of appeal case. It was felt that as I had intervened in the first court case in the divisional court, it might be a good idea if I stayed on to give evidence as the surveillance camera regulator.

Why did the South Wales police force lose the case on appeal?

Civil Liberties organisation Liberty was supporting Bridges claiming that his human rights had been impacted upon. It went to divisional court which upheld South Wales’ police assertion that LFR had been used lawfully. But it was appealed on three grounds: that it wasn’t used in accordance with the law, that they hadn’t complied with the public sector equality duties and that they’d failed to complete the data protection impact assessment which is a requirement under the Data Protection Act.

So it wasn’t that the facial recognition technology per se was the problem, but more to do with the way it had been implemented?

Yes, that’s right. The court provided guidance as to how the law should be applied which I held to be a very clear signal that the technology can be used lawfully, providing it’s not impermissibly wide and is in accordance with the law direction. In that particular case the judges recognised that the retention of your electronic signature – ie. your face – for a nano-second wasn’t unlawful, but the way the police had pulled together their ‘watch list’ was too broad. The police could put anyone on there and that was grossly unfair.

The UK has one of the most surveillance cameras in the world per capita, why do you think that is?

A lot of the research shows that because we’ve never been subject to the fascist jackboot on our throats that the public has less of an animosity towards surveillance cameras than elsewhere. They see them as a vehicle of community support as opposed to oppression, whereas in some countries they have had surveillance cameras as part of their very sombre and dark everyday lives. I think they really came into our consciousness during the Jamie Bulger murder in the 1990s when people viewed them as a good thing because they helped identify the killers quickly.


Do you think this is still the case or has the public’s views on surveillance cameras changed more recently, particularly with the introduction of facial recognition technology?

There is the real danger that the overwhelming view of civil libertarians can drown out the positive impact of this technology and I’m not prepared to let that happen. I do believe that it is, for example, appropriate, necessary and justified to use the technology to identify a person who is seriously injured when we need to reach out to their relatives. For people to scream from the rooftops ‘this is a breach of civil rights’ is wrong. However, you need to prove the use of technology is necessary and justified and that you care for the privacy issues of the public.

How have you seen the way that surveillance cameras are used change recently, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

One example is automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) which has been used recently to see if an English person is travelling to the Welsh border. That feels like a quantum shift from why ANPR was introduced in the first place. And I am concerned that there hasn’t been any democratic discussion or a statute overseeing its (ANPR’s) extraordinary powerful database and use as a surveillance tool – one which captures 60 billion numberplates a year. I have repeatedly called for the government to legislate for it.

“There is the real danger that the overwhelming view of civil libertarians can drown out the positive impact of this technology and I’m not prepared to let that happen.”

Also, when the police used a drone in the Peak District to monitor a couple out walking a dog it was entirely inappropriate. That said, I do have some sympathy for some police forces when they get it wrong because we are in the foothills of a new regime, where we are seeing the unparalleled suppression of human rights in the interests of public health.

In relation to COVID more generally, one of the things that I noted about Corsight’s technology was its ability to recognise faces even if they are wearing a facemask. It can also recognise when people are not wearing facemasks without specifically identifying a face, which can be very useful for public health reasons too.

But do you think the pandemic could be used by some companies as an excuse to implement facial recognition technology without any real public benefit?

I think companies do need to consider the legitimacy of the surveillance. One of the things that persuaded me to come to Corsight was the constant battledrum from senior leaders within the CorsightAi-FacialRecognition-21organisation who wanted me because they knew I was tough and demanded high standards. They knew that I would be going into the guts of every single solution to make sure that it is a force for good and not a tool of oppression. One of my responsibilities going into the role of CPO at Corsight will actually be to work closely with end customers on the delivery of this technology in order to ensure they both understand and comply with regulatory benchmarks.

My honestly held belief is that we shouldn’t be Luddites about facial recognition technology – that it has amazing positive consequences in terms of saving human lives, protecting vulnerable people, countering drug and people trafficking and much more. However, the quid pro quo is that suppliers of the kit have to look at privacy, security, integrity, lawfulness, fairness and transparency every step of the journey.

Do you think the use of the technology in the private sector is less likely to meet these criteria than in the public sector, where public health and law enforcement may be more compelling reasons?

I think an argument has to be made by companies on a case-by-case basis to justify why they are using such a high-tech piece of kit. For example, retailers could argue they are helping to keep prices low and people employed by using a database that identifies the faces of known recidivists who are shoplifting from their stores.

Conversely, a retailer could inform customers on the outside of its stores that it uses facial recognition technology, enabling them to opt into a biometric database to buy products without having to use cash or cards in a store. It’s really akin to using your fingerprint or iris to access your phone or laptop.

People are reaping the benefits of this technology. For example, it can reduce the time as well as the resources needed by companies. However, it needs to be managed in a way that is both professional and ethical.

Corsight AI is a facial recognition technology provider, which works with government agencies and companies in a variety of sectors, including law enforcement, aviation, retail and entertainment. It is jointly headquartered in the United States and UK, with R&D offices in Israel.

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