Facial recognition technology 'cannot be safely rolled out' in Ireland

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Facial Recognition Technology 'Cannot Be Safely Rolled Out' In Ireland Facial Recognition Technology 'Cannot Be Safely Rolled Out' In Ireland
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is set to bring legislation before Cabinet to pave the way for the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) by Gardaí. Photo: PA Images
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James Cox

The proposed Garda use of facial recognition technology would pose more risks than benefits, and problems with its accuracy should be a "red flag", according to a digital policy professor.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is set to bring legislation before Cabinet to pave the way for the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) by Gardaí.

However, privacy advocates have said this move could pose dangers to the public, while those who have studied the FRT technology currently available have said it is not fit for purpose.

Elizabeth Farries, Assistant Professor of the School of Information and Communication Studies at UCD, told BreakingNews.ie: "The existing evidence we have is that it's quite clear it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

"We have peer reviewed research and studies saying that the risks of discrimination are too high to deploy it in policing contexts.

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"A lot of discussion is around the accuracy. The tech thus far has been shown to disproportionately misidentify anyone who is not a white man, therefore if you are Black, if you are a woman, you are at a higher risk of being misidentified."

She said a lot of rights experts argue that fixing these big accuracy problems wouldn't necessarily resolve the issue, "then there is the problem of discriminatory deployment, and over policing of marginalised communities".

Data protection

Prof Farries also cited data protection and regulation concerns as big issues when it comes to FRT.

"We really don't know what the gardaí are planning on doing. We don't know what's actually happening with this in Ireland, we don't have access to that information.

"If we as the public are going to allow gardaí to police us with this tech, we need to know exactly what it is, how it's being used, how it's being deployed, none of that information has been shared.

"What we do know is simply that gardaí are going to be using this, and that legislation is going to be pushed through in a way that raises concerns for the democratic process."

Prof Farries said there were "problems" with the Justice Minister's proposals to amend an existing bill at committee stage to legalise FRT.

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"The appropriate democratic approach would be to first start public consultations with experts and debates to see if we should decide to use this tech in the first instance," she explained.

"If people were to agree based on those public consultations that the tech should be used, then decisions should be made about how legislation should be put forward."

Prof Farries added: "The committee stage as the minister suggested is a very end game situation, it's at the end of the legislative process, which means they would be trying to put that amendment through without the usual debates, discussions, and public reviews having taken place and that's a misstep in terms of the democratic process, and it's entirely inappropriate for such a risky form of tech.

"Even though this technology is available for policing, it doesn't mean we should use it, and it doesn't mean we should trust it."

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has expressed concerns about the potential use of FRT, and Prof Farries said these concerns are "on point".

"Lots of experts have expressed concerns on racial grounds, against ethnic minorities. If you take all those risks; surveillance, data protection, accuracy, put those together, and they're significant enough in a policing context that they can't be safeguarded by legislation and there aren't circumstances currently in which this tech can safely be rolled out in Ireland."

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Prof Farries also said there are dystopian elements to the use of FRT in society.

Dystopian

She pointed to China, where it has been used to catch jaywalkers, and Russia, where the Kremlin uses it to crack down on anti-government protesters.

"I struggle with the Orwellian language, I'm not sure if it's overused, but the tech is very dystopic in character.

"There are Black Mirror-like aspects to it. The concerns are so significant that experts around the world have called for a ban, hundreds of civil societies. Whole cities have banned it in the States because of those risks.

"In China they use the facial recognition tech to scan anyone who jaywalks and then post those pictures on a big screen, and shame those individuals into paying fines. [At] anti-government protests in Moscow, they deployed facial recognition tech on the crowd and gathered all the sensitive biometric data of the protesters.

"The Government will say 'we will use this in a very specific way that's very constrained, supported by legislation'. The risks of scope creep, of it being pushed out in ways that it shouldn't be, are just too high.

"That coupled with all the other problems, the fact it doesn't do what policing people want it to do, doesn't accomplish the goal set out, it doesn't make society safer, the risks are so high it makes us less safe."

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Prof Farries pointed out that gardaí have expressed concerns about GPS being used to monitor their work by senior management.

"Gardaí don't want to be surveilled themselves, they have pushed back against the use of GPS. If gardaí don't accept that level of surveillance, why would the Government feel it's safe to use a much more sensitive and invasive technology in facial recognition tech.

"The Government is saying we have these very safe restrained uses, but nobody knows what they are, and that's the conversation that should be started. What tech is out there and what do the guards think could be useful, rather than 'we are going to use the tech, and we're going to write it into law'.

"The US has very lax laws when you look at things like gun use, if they are less risk averse about personal safety, but are nonetheless themselves putting in laws banning facial recognition technology that should be a really big red flag for other jurisdictions."

She pointed out that senior figures in the European Parliament have also expressed concerns about FRT.

Facial recognition tech has the capacity to scan and collect data about everyone, even people who would be of no interest to gardaí.

"Given the concerns from academics, civil societies, politicians and impacted stakeholders around the world, I think it's important for Ireland to slow down and resolve those concerns before adapting technology like facial recognition tech.

"There are enough voices speaking out that I would hope the Government would hear them and start with the right consultation methods, bring in the experts and decide.

"Facial recognition tech has the capacity to scan and collect data about everyone, even people who would be of no interest to gardaí."

Prof Farries said the Government should consider issues with data and privacy legislation before looking at FRT.

"The Data Retention Act and the problems with the Graham Dwyer case, the public services card, the illegality of that, mistakes have been made before in Ireland in terms of surveillance, rights and legality.

"They've made mistakes before, this is an opportunity not to repeat that mistake.

"There is nothing more private than our faces, the ability of that tech to scoop that up, is not necessary and wholly disproportionate to the aims the Justice Minister is trying to secure."

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