United Kingdom

UK Puts Hundreds of Thousands of Innocent People in Facial Recognition Database

The smart money says U.S. agencies can get that up to millions



British police have loaded 18 million faces into a facial recognition database, including the mugs of "hundreds of thousands of individuals who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, an offence." That interesting datum was first reported last month by the BBC, and confirmed a few weeks ago by a parliamentary report. That's a revelation that should be of concern not only to Britons, but to citizens of a certain republic on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean where intrusive and fallible facial recognition technology has been embraced by the authorities with an enthusiasm rivaling that in the UK.

In February, the BBC's Nick Hopkins and Jake Morris revealed:

Police forces in England and Wales have uploaded up to 18 million "mugshots" to a facial recognition database—despite a court ruling it could be unlawful.

They include photos of people never charged, or others cleared of an offence, and were uploaded without Home Office approval, Newsnight has learned.

Photos of "hundreds of thousands" of innocent people may be on the database, an independent commissioner said.

The database complies with the Data Protection Act, police insisted.

Biometrics Commissioner Alastair MacGregor QC said he was concerned about the implications of the system for privacy and civil liberties.

How many mugshots? And of innocent people? What?

That information turned out to be a leak from an extensive report prepared by members of Parliament for the House of Commons Science and Tchnology Committee on the use, misuse, and undirected adoption of biometric technology by the UK government. In the case of facial recognition, the above-mentioned Alastair MacGregor is quoted as noting the hoovering up of hundreds of thousands of apparently innocent—or at least not obviously guilty—people into the Police National Database. That hoovering came courtesy of a bit of a legal oversight.

Compounding this confusion was an apparent 'gap' in the legislation regarding the retention of images, and the use of facial recognition software, by the police. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) stated that the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 "does not cover photographs" and that there was "no specific legislation covering their retention or their use".

Nobody told the cops they couldn't load every snapshot they got their hands on into the system, so they did.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it should. Last year we found out that America's own FBI plans to load 52 million of our mugs into own Next Generation Identification database. That's in addition to roughly 120 million snaps stored in independent (for now) state databases. The ACLU's Jennifer Lynch warned at that time that the sourcing for some of those shots was a bit vague, raising the very real possibility of innocent people being entered into the system for a permanent role in police lineups.

Which is a bit disturbing when you consider that FBI specs allow for tagging "an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20% of the time."

British parliamentarians also fret about just who has access to all of that sensitive biometric data. The report noted that "the more agencies and organisations that have access to an individual's biometric information, the greater the likelihood that this information will be used for another purpose beyond that for which it was originally collected."

But Americans are way ahead of the UK there. Two years ago, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine quietly added facial recognition capability to the state's store of photographs, and then handed access to 30,000 of his friends. What could go wrong? Oh.

NEXT: High School Superintendent: Teen Sexting Is a Police Matter

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  1. I’m sure Orwell will be proud that Airsrip One has adopted ‘1984’ as an instruction book.

    1. +1 bottle of Victory Gin.

    2. If there’s any hope at all, it’s with the proles…

    3. His ideas for the book didn’t just come from his experiences in Barcelona. They came from home too.

      1. “If there is hope,’ wrote Winston, ‘it lies in the proles.’

        If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there in those swarming disregarded masses, 85 per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated. The Party could not be overthrown from within. Its enemies, if it had any enemies, had no way of coming together or even of identifying one another. Even if the legendary Brotherhood existed, as just possibly it might, it was inconceivable that its members could ever assemble in larger numbers than twos and threes. Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflexion of the voice, at the most, an occasional whispered word. But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength. would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it? And yet ??!”

  2. “the more agencies and organisations that have access to an individual’s biometric information, the greater the likelihood that this information will be used for another purpose beyond that for which it was originally collected.”
    When the original purpose for collecting the information is “FYTW”, it’s almost laughable to suggest there’s any sort of disturbing likelihood the information will be used for some sort of nefarious purpose.

  3. “Innocent People.”

    How quaint. We’re only “innocent” because we haven’t committed a crime YET.

    1. We’re only “innocent” because we haven’t committed a crime been caught YET.

    2. Yep, they’ll be guilty of something sooner or later. Might as well get them into the database now and save themselves the hassle.

  4. Oh, calm down, J.D. It’s probably just the training set.


  5. FBI specs allow for tagging “an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20% of the time.”

    OK, I’ll bite. What does that even mean?

    1. It means that a recognition system that flags the wrong person for arrest and/or murder one time out of five is A-OK with the FBI.

      1. They’ve come a long way from Blackstone, haven’t they? (“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”)

      2. “Flag ’em *all*. Let the FBI sort ’em out.”

        Less snarkily, that “spec” seems poorly-worded. E.g., how many “flags” does the software return per “time”? Oh, well, I’m not going to look up the actual document.

        1. Well that’s probably a journalistic summary rather than the actual wording of the development spec sheet.

      3. But Hugh, when you put it that way, it sounds bad!

  6. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?


  7. soon they will also have loud speakers that will order everyone to stop and look directly at their nearest CCTV camera in emergencies. Then the drones take out all suspected criminals (with about 80% accuracy).

    Tomorrow is here today!

    1. Honestly, is there a back-up planet I can apply to? This one is getting rancid.

      1. yes, they only accepted 100 volunteers (and none of them are anyone you’d want to hang out with…)

      2. No, but you can go to the mirror universe. Just remember that the bad universe is the one where Episiarch is a fat deluded stoner with a beard.

        1. neck beard or pretend girlfriend covering for his homosexuality?

          1. Pretend?!? Look, she’s real! It’s a much better cover for my homosexuality than a pretend one!

        2. The trick with mirror universes is understanding that there are an infinite number of them. I found a perfect libertopia that I was going to go to, but they didn’t have barbecue pork, so I had to stay here.

          1. It’s not PERFECT if they don’t que the swine!

        3. I see everyone got the memo about Single Out Episiarch Day.

  8. “Police forces in England and Wales have uploaded up to 18 million “mugshots” to a facial recognition database – despite a court ruling it could be unlawful.”

    This is the same police force that monitors social media for impure thoughts, right? The same police force that arrests people for the look on their face? The same police force that wants CCTV in every home and business?

    Air Strip One is so far gone I don’t know why they bother pretending anymore.

  9. “The smart money says U.S. agencies can get that up to millions.”

    More and more, the subtitle appears to be Reason contributors’ method of totally participating in the commentary, while maintaining proper dignity.

    Sly devils.

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