The Government seems determined to push ahead with controversial legislation on the use of facial recognition technologies (FRT) for policing, an ill-advised and overly hasty move.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee announced last May that her department would introduce legislation to permit An Garda Síochána to use FRT for analysing recorded CCTV footage, a time-consuming task currently done manually. In some cases, software could be used to identify and track people in real time by live camera.
While on the surface such technologies may appear a useful tool for policing, the reality is far more complicated – so much so that FRT has been banned or tightly limited in many places, including two dozen US cities and states. In part, this is because the technologies haven’t been proven to be all that effective. Numerous studies have found that FRT produces many false results, wrongly identifying some individuals as suspects while missing those who are,and is particularly weak at identifying the faces of people of colour.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), along with six academics working in the area, wrote an open letter to McEntee last month, noting that the use of FRT also raises serious and challenging issues about individual privacy and data rights, in a world where population-level mass surveillance is no longer a dystopian fiction but an easy implementation. Already, people are growing increasingly normalised to FRTs to unlock phone handsets,or move through airport passport control. Such uses produce databases of unique biometric facial identification that can be combined with larger profiling databases.
As the ICCL letter notes, in Ireland, greater consideration and consultation – including with the Data Protection Commissioner – is needed before any legislation is published. In addition, major EU-level legislation is pending which considers FRTs and would potentially force immediate changes to rushed Irish legislation. The department would be wise to hold off and shape its legislation around binding guidance from the EU.