Glyn Owen

British Cops Will Scan Every Fan's Face at the Champions League Final

South Wales Police is piloting facial recognition at one of Europe's biggest sporting events.

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Apr 26 2017, 1:00pm

Glyn Owen

When thousands of football fans pour into Cardiff's Principality Stadium on June 3 to watch the final match of the UEFA Champions League, few will be aware that their faces will have already been scanned, processed, and compared to a police database of some 500,000 "persons of interest".

Despite significant criticism against the technology from fans, British police will pilot a new facial recognition surveillance system at the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff, Wales this summer.

According to a government tender issued by South Wales Police, the system will be deployed during the day of the game in Cardiff's main train station, as well as in and around the Principality Stadium situated in the heart of Cardiff's central retail district.

Cameras will potentially be scanning the faces of an estimated 170,000 visitors plus the many more thousands of people in the vicinity of the bustling Saturday evening city center on match day, June 3. Captured images will then be compared in real time to 500,000 custody images stored in the police information and records management system alerting police to any "persons of interest," according to the tender.

The security operation will build on previous police use of Automated Facial Recognition, or AFR technology by London's Metropolitan Police during 2016's Notting Hill Carnival.

"I have seen the use of AFR increase"

In an email interview with the UK Government's surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter, who in March released a national strategy on use of surveillance cameras, Motherboard was told that incidents like the recent attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus before a Champions League quarter-final match are examples of why law enforcement organisations are looking at AFR. However, he outlined that police must utilise the technology in a measured way that is compliant with the surveillance camera code of practice.

"My office has been in touch with South Wales Police to help them ensure that when deploying AFR they are complying with the code [of practice]," he said.

"I have seen the use of AFR increase [over] the past few years and a recent report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology indicated that facial recognition is a difficult challenge. Getting the best, most accurate results for each intended application requires good algorithms, a dedicated design effort, a multidisciplinary team of experts, limited-size image databases, and field tests to properly calibrate and optimize the technology."

Cardiff city centre. Image: Glyn Owen.

But questions of effectiveness of AFR, as well as a lack of oversight, still surround the technology. South Wales Police have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Recent findings in NIST's Face In Video Evaluation program report, which the commissioner referred to, details the limitations of AFR in identifying "non-cooperative" subjects—that is, subjects who are not facing the camera or whose faces are obscured. The report finds that accurate facial recognition can only be achieved in controlled environments with high quality cameras, as a subject's face can easily be obscured for any number of reasons. It also outlines that the need for multiple cameras comes with a high computation cost.

The accuracy of facial recognition software has also recently been publicly criticised in the US during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The committee revealed findings by the Government Accountability Office that algorithms used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation were inaccurate 14 percent of the time and were more likely to misidentify black people.

The report was also damming of the FBI's unregulated and disproportionate use of facial recognition tech, which mirrors recent controversy caused by findings of unlawful retention of photos of millions of innocent people by UK police forces.

Cardiff city centre. Image: Glyn Owen.

The practical limitations of AFR are corroborated by the follow up statement issued by the Metropolitan Police concerning the Notting Hill Carnival operation. Use of AFR during the security operation led to zero arrests, failing to identify even a single person of interest despite there being a total of 454 arrests made during the course of the carnival.

"The lack of legal safeguards for the public is growing wider and more alarming all the time,"

The limitations in the effectiveness of AFR, as well as confusion around regulations, are worrying to privacy advocates like Rachel Robinson, policy director at human rights and civil liberties campaign organisation Liberty.

"The chasm between the increasingly advanced surveillance technology rolled out by police and the lack of legal safeguards for the public is growing wider and more alarming all the time," she told Motherboard via email.

Read more: This Map Shows the UK's Surveillance Exports

Robinson said that there are indeed times when targeted CCTV is necessary and proportionate, but that, "instantaneous facial recognition technology with the potential to identify anyone in a crowd of thousands, alongside ongoing police storage of huge numbers of innocent people's photographs, is a seriously intrusive combination."

Despite clear issues and trepidations concerning AFR, appetite for the use of the technology by law enforcement appears to be significant.

"I foresee this continuing," said Porter concerning future use of AFR by police. "In terms of additional applications I can see it linking in with other technology such as body worn video, being used along other databases and so on."

Security cameras inside Cardiff's Principality Stadium. Image: Glyn Owen.

This statement aligns with information contained within a financial strategy document showing that South Wales Police took a national lead in securing a £2 million grant from the Home Office through the Police Transformation Fund to be allocated to various UK police forces to spend on facial recognition systems.

The £177,000 contract notice issued by South Wales Police titled "Automated Facial Recognition Solution" directly related to the UCL final states the duration of the contract to be five years; indicating that the controversial technology is certainly set to see further police deployment in the future.

Update:

On April 27, South Wales Police responded to Motherboard's requests for comment.

Chief Superintendent Jon Edwards, Gold Commander for event, said, "South Wales Police has secured funding from the Home Office to develop automated facial recognition technology for policing. The UEFA Champions League finals in Cardiff give us a unique opportunity to test and prove the concept of this technology in a live operational environment, which will hopefully prove the benefits and the application of such technology across policing."

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