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Strategy Director, Security & Fire, Informa Markets EMEA

September 17, 2020


State of Physical Access Trend Report 2024

Facial Recognition

Facial recognition – “Its public use must be legal, ethical and justified”

Gerry Dunphy explores the use of facial recognition technology, discussing the responses of over 450 security professionals to a recent survey IFSEC ran on the subject.

Facial recognition and cybercrime are two of the issues leading the agenda in security, and both will be centre stage at our upcoming IFSEC Tech Talks (6 October) and IFSEC International next May.

Facial recognition technology is currently in use across the UK. It’s heavily used in personal devices to unlock phones, tablets and laptops, but it’s also found in areas identified as potential targets for terrorist threats, such as major transport hubs like Gatwick and Heathrow airports and it’s widely in use at passport control areas in the form of ‘e-Gates’ to assist with passport checks. In the private sector it’s used in retail and many large-scale property owners such as Argent, which is using the technology on its 67-acre site in Kings Cross in London, home to a university campus. On paper, facial recognition is an incredible technological breakthrough and has huge potential to prevent terrorist and other criminal attacks.

Find out more and register for the upcoming IFSEC & FIREX Tech Talks!

This week saw the launch of the inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing. The terrorists behind this attack were known to the security services, they should have been on a watchlist and, if they had, it’s arguable that facial recognition technology could have stopped them and saved 23 lives.

However, there are still questions about the validity of facial recognition —both the technology itself and its deployment—preventing it from being used for mass surveillance. Concerns were raised back in August after the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of pressure group Liberty claiming the use of automatic facial recognition technology by South Wales Police was unlawful.

And earlier in the summer Amazon, Microsoft and IBM took a step back from their home-grown facial recognition technologies, pausing their sale to US police departments due to alleged racial bias. IBM stated it plans to exit altogether. Amazon has put in place a one-year hold on police departments using its ‘Rekognition’ tech. Microsoft is waiting for new legalisation before it starts selling to law enforcement.

Earlier this month, we ran a survey on behalf of IFSEC International about facial recognition (you may well have been among our 457 respondents). We asked whether Amazon and Microsoft were right to pause sales to the police. 43% answered yes compared to 27% who said no. We also asked if facial recognition technology is currently equipped to account for diversity—34% said no. And we asked whether there needs to be better regulation to prevent misuse from potential racial bias, with which 82% agreed.

Personally, I also agree. Where there is any discrepancy – any chink in the armour – then the use of surveillance technology of any kind should be paused. It’s critical we remember this is a human rights issue, and we cannot risk the possibility of a single wrongful arrest or imprisonment as a result of flawed technology or processes.

In light of these cases, the use of facial recognition has caused upset among some parties. There tends to be two camps when it comes to public security and policing: those who think, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong – why should I worry?’, and those who think, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong – why are they filming me? Why are they taking my data? Who’s accessing it? Where’s it going? How long is it being stored for? Isn’t this managed by GDPR?’

The latter group, together with many younger people who are wise about technology and vocal about human rights, are raising questions about facial recognition and its use in society.


It was interesting to note in our survey that, while 70% of respondents said they are comfortable with facial recognition being used in public spaces, only 30% believe the general public is, and 85% agreed that it’s important or very important to consider the impact of surveillance technology on personal freedoms.

When you consider the fragility of the country at the moment – thanks in part to tensions caused by COVID-19 and Brexit – the last thing we want is to add to this anxiety through mandatory mass surveillance.

How do we fix this? Currently it seems to be a very top down approach led by the Home Secretary. But this is such a huge issue, I think it could benefit from being a three-way conversation between government, the security industry and the general public centred on listening, educating and reassuring.

Ultimately, the technology isn’t going anywhere, and in time it will become the norm like CCTV. The fact is, most people are happy to carry personal surveillance tools every day in the form of a smartphone.

Essentially, I believe we are one or two major incidents (that facial recognition could have justifiably prevented) away from this technology being fast-tracked into widespread use. Given what Dave Sloggett said recently about COVID-19 creating a landscape for bad people to do bad things, especially when we return to ‘normal’ and we begin dropping our guard, who knows how soon this may happen.

In my opinion – and I believe I am echoing the sentiment of Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter here – the key is not to ban the technology but to ensure it is fit for purpose and used in a legal, ethical and justifiable way within an agreed framework. This will not only allow us as an industry to reassure the public, but also to reassure the police, who are equally keen for guidance about how to use this potentially life-saving technology to safeguard the public.

Keep an eye out for the Briefcam presentation on facial recognition during IFSEC Tech Talks on 6 October, and visit IFSEC International to register your interest in attending IFSEC International on 18–21 May 2021. The event’s partnership with Counter Terror Expo means IFSEC International offers a complete, end-to-end overview of the security industry.

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