The Irish Times view on gardaí and facial recognition technology: scepticism is warranted

Europe’s highest court has deemed more than once that Ireland has failed to implement the kind of protections Helen McEntee is now promising for facial recognition

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s proposed introduction of facial recognition technology (FRT) for policing comes amidst wide international debate about the accuracy, appropriateness and implementation of such tools.

McEntee’s statements about its use, made at the Garda Representative Association conference this week, were a gesture of intent scant in detail, but she indicated the technology would be adopted to scan photographic and film evidence against a database of images of suspects. She said a major backlog exists of evidence needing examination, a task demanding “thousands of hours” of Garda manual inspection of images and CCTV footage. When time is of the essence, in serious crimes such as child abductions and abuse, or murder investigations, boosting capabilities significantly with FRT could expedite policing work. She will now seek Cabinet approval for its use.

FRT is already used by many policing and investigative bodies, including Europol. But it has been banned in many places, including in several US cities and states, due to questions over its use to effectively surveil populations while failing to match actual performance against industry hype. Several studies have demonstrated FRT’s weaknesses, with significant rates of mismatches, especially against women, children and people of colour. Mismatches can cause life-impacting trauma for those wrongly accused of heinous crimes.

Ironically, the timing of McEntee’s proposal couldn’t have been more effective in highlighting the controversies and challenges that will arise as the State works to add a technology to its policing arsenal which carries such significant data, privacy and civil rights concerns. The week began with the announcement of yet another significant fine being imposed on Clearview AI, one of the best-known FRT companies, this time for compiling a massive database of images of UK citizens without obtaining people’s permission.

Then the Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for convicted murderer Graham Dwyer to challenge the State’s use of phone data as evidence against him, after the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled against Ireland earlier this year for having failed, over many years, to create adequate safeguards and oversight for the gathering, storage and use of communications data.

While McEntee noted correctly that, at times, policing and security imperatives may outweigh individual privacy rights, the CJEU Dwyer ruling, and the 2014 CJEU decision on which it was largely based, remind us that this is not a blanket right and has important legal constraints. Europe’s highest court has deemed more than once that Ireland has failed to implement the kind of protections McEntee is now promising for FRT. Public scepticism is warranted until the State shows it can enact legislation responsibly.