Facial recognition technology ‘inappropriate for policing,’ say privacy rights advocates

Irish Council for Civil Liberties and academics raise concerns about plans for law to enable technology that is banned for policing in other countries

Human rights advocates have raised serious concerns with the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, about legislative plans to allow gardaí to use facial recognition technology, describing it as “inappropriate for policing.”

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), along with six academics working in the area of law, technology and digital policy, jointly wrote to Ms McEntee last week warning about the introduction of legislation to enable gardaí to use the technology in criminal investigations.

Following a November 10th briefing with the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána, the group rejected the department’s view in their letter that the technology was safe, ethical or legal just because it was being used by policing organisations in different jurisdictions.

“These comments belie the fact the technology is increasingly being banned or suspended around the world for policing,” they said in their November 23rd letter to Ms McEntee.


The remarks “ignore” the fact that 200 civil society organisations across the globe and 13 non-government organisations and seven universities in Ireland have also called for bans, they said.

“We don’t want to replicate the autocratic character of regimes where this technology gradually becomes normalised in all areas of public life,” the letter says.

Signatories to the letter include Liam Herrick, executive director of the ICCL; Barry O’Sullivan, professor of computer science at UCC in Cork; Elizabeth Farries, director of the UCD Centre for Digital Policy, and TJ McIntyre, associate professor of law at UCD and chairman of data privacy campaign group Digital Rights Ireland.

Setting out plans for the technology earlier this year, Ms McEntee said there would be safeguards and codes of practice in place to comply with EU privacy laws and people’s privacy.

The Minister has said that technology was involved in a large amount of criminal activity and gardaí need to have the technological resources to deal with this effectively.

She has referred to the large amount of CCTV footage trawled through by gardaí in the investigation of crimes such as child abduction, child sexual abuse and murder investigations.

The human rights and privacy advocates told Ms McEntee in their letter that they agreed that keeping children safe was “of the utmost importance”, but that “protecting children also means protecting them from the dangerous and disproportionate consequences” of the technology.

The group told the Minister they were particularly concerned that Garda members deny “significant and robust scientific evidence demonstrating accuracy and bias concerns.”

“The risks for vulnerablised groups, particularly darker skin-toned individuals, not only were unacknowledged, members stated repeatedly that accuracy was not a concern,” they said.

They queried why the Government was investing money and resources in creating a law that may need to be significantly amended in the near future given that the forthcoming EU Artificial Intelligence Act, which Ireland will be subject to, will cover the technology.

The group asked the Minister to engage in a process of consultation with interested parties before deciding to use the technology in policing given how the processing of biometric data under all circumstances “constitutes a serious interference”.

They raised concerns that the Data Protection Commission or community groups at risk from the technology’s “established accuracy and bias problems” had not yet been formally consulted.

Concerns were also raised in the letter about potential risks to the administration of justice.

“The risks to the right to a fair trial and the right to privacy, as well as the potential for miscarriages of justice, require a clear demonstration that this tech is necessary and that it is the least-intrusive way to achieve what it aims to achieve,” the group said.

“We are not convinced that these tests have been met. Trials of facial recognition technology in other police services highlight these human rights law concerns.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent