Editor, IFSEC Global

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James Moore is the Editor of IFSEC Global, the leading resource for security and fire news in the industry. James was previously Editor of Professional Heating & Plumbing Installer magazine.
August 11, 2020

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Use of automated facial recognition by South Wales Police deemed unlawful, court rules

The debate surrounding the legality of the use of automated facial recognition in the UK continues to come under scrutiny following a ruling from the Court of Appeal on its use by South Wales Police.

facial recognitionThe ongoing investigation into the use of automated facial recognition by South Wales Police has now concluded, with the court of appeal ruling that the deployments were not in accordance with the law.

The case relates to the use of automated facial recognition (AFR) technology by South Wales Police between May 2017 and April 2019. AFR Locate was used to capture faces via a live camera feed and automatically compare them to those on a watchlist. If the faces were matched, a police officer would then make a final judgement on whether it was accurate. If there was no match, the facial images were automatically deleted from the database.

Mr Edward Bridges, who had been in the vicinity of the deployments in Cardiff on two separate occasions, has been arguing his case for the unlawful use of AFR since mid-2019. He claimed that the use impinged on “the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, data protection legislation, and the Public Sector Equality Duty under section 149 of the Equality Act”. The latter of these claims was made in relation to concerns that AFR Locate might be indirectly discriminatory on grounds of race and gender – highlighting ongoing concerns of whether facial recognition may contain racial and gender bias.

Civil Rights group, Liberty, has supported Mr Bridges throughout this process.


Read more about IFSEC Global’s initial coverage of the case, here: Automatic facial recognition: lawful use or do we need more safeguards?


While the Divisional Court initially dismissed Mr Bridge’s claim, the Court of Appeal has now ruled in favour of three out of five grounds.

  • That the deployments did not have clear guidance on where AFR Locate could be used and who could be put on the watchlist.
  • That South Wales Police failed to carry out an adequate data protection impact assessment.
  • That South Wales Police did not take reasonable steps to assess whether AFR Locate software had bias on racial or sex grounds – though the court did note that there was no evidence that the software did in fact contain such bias.

The court did however find that the use of AFR was in line with proportionate interference with human rights, as the benefits were great compared to the potential minimal impact on Mr Bridges and other members of society.

The full outcome of the case and judge comments can be found here: R (Bridges) v CC South Wales

Responding to the ruling, Mr Bridges said: “I’m delighted that the court has agreed that facial recognition clearly threatens our rights. This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool.”

Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England and Wales

Liberty’s Barrister, Dan Squires QC, explained his belief that it was the potential use of the power, not its [AFR] actual use to date, that was the issue.

South Wales Police has said that it will not be appealing the decision, and noted it will continue to take stock and learn from the judgement on how best to utilise similar technologies in the future.

Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England and Wales, has also responded to the ruling in his most recent blog. While a “long supporter of the police using technology to keep us safe”, Tony highlights he has continually made efforts to emphasise its use must be “lawful, justifiable and proportionate”, throughout his tenure in office.

He believes the current framework is insufficient and the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice must be updated to keep up with the developments in technology. “I’m extremely glad that the court suggests the Code can be updated to provide greater rigour around who is on a watchlist and where this technology can be deployed,” added Tony. “I hope this gives the Home Office the impetus to update the Code and I stand ready to assist them in this endeavour.”

You can also read Tony’s full statement to the government, here, in which he concluded: “I very much welcome the findings of the court in these circumstances. I do not believe the judgment is fatal to the use of this technology, indeed, I believe adoption of new and advancing technologies is an important element of keeping citizens safe. It does however set clear parameters as to use, regulation and legal oversight.”

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