Garda to use facial recognition technology

Civil liberties groups have previously voiced worries over surveillance and discrimination

The Garda Síochána is to get new powers to use facial-recognition technology that could lead to identification of criminals within minutes, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is expected to announce on Wednesday.

The technology will be used along with artificial intelligence and expanded surveillance powers to allow the rapid identification of criminals from thousands of hours of CCTV footage.

The Minister, who is due to speak at the Garda Representative Association conference in Westport, is expected to say facial-recognition technology will greatly assist murder, child exploitation and missing persons investigations.

Gardaí will be able to feed an image of a suspect or missing person into a computer system, which will be able to compare it quickly it with thousands of faces captured on cameras.


The prospect of the Garda being permitted to use facial-recognition technology has caused concern among civil liberties and privacy campaigners recently.

At an Oireachtas committee hearing last September, the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) said there was clear evidence of in-built biases in facial-recognition technology which impacts trust between police and communities.

ICCL legal officer Doireann Ansbro said the facial-recognition technology had been proven in other countries to have ethnic, racial and gender biases and “has enabled mass surveillance and discriminatory targeted surveillance”.

Safety and security

In her address to the Garda Representative Association’s annual conference Ms McEntee is expected to say she cannot agree with those who advocate for a ban on police use of the technology. She will say there are times when public safety and national security must override the right to privacy.

The Minister will also seek to assuage concerns about the human rights implications of the technology. Decisions on when and how to use facial recognition will be taken by a trained garda and never by an computer, she will say. “Basically, there will always be a human in the loop. The technology will only play a supporting role”, a source with knowledge of the proposals said.

There will be in-built safeguards in the enacting legislation, including a full impact assessment of the human rights and data protection implications of the technology.

The Minister is expected to promise the technology will not be used for indiscriminate surveillance, mass data gathering or racial profiling.

Innocent people

As well as helping to identify suspects in a crowd, it will also be able to exonerate innocent people by showing they were elsewhere at the time of a crime, she will tell gardaí. She will say the technology will be particularly beneficial in child exploitation cases, which often involve thousands of hours of video footage which currently have to be manually analysed.

The legislative basis for the technology will be introduced in the form of an amendment to the Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill.

In its current form, the Bill provides for the use of body-worn cameras, automatic number-plate-recognition technology and third-party CCTV by gardaí. The Government will introduce amendments at committee stage to allow evidence collected through these means to be used with facial-recognition technology.

Ms McEntee will seek Cabinet approval for the measure before bringing it forward in committee stage in autumn. The Bill is expected to be fully enacted by the end of the year.

In her speech to gardaí, Ms McEntee will say that other police forces and agencies, such as Europol, Interpol, the UK’s National Crime Agency and the US’s National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, already use facial-recognition technology and that gardaí require it too if they are to co-operate effectively with these bodies.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times