Ministers look to enhance policing with body-worn facial recognition technology

The ongoing debate highlights the delicate balance between utilizing emerging technologies for crime prevention and safeguarding individual rights and freedoms.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Police in Vest
Police in uniform.


In a bold move that is already sparking intense debate, ministers are pushing for the integration of facial recognition technology into everyday policing operations. They plan to potentially connect it to the body-worn cameras utilized by officers on their patrols. 

This significant development marks a departure from the limited use of live facial recognition (LFR) by police in England and Wales. It has been largely confined to special operations such as football matches or high-profile events.

The intentions of the government were unveiled in a document presented to the surveillance camera commissioner. They highlighted proposed changes to the oversight of surveillance technology.

It revealed that the policing minister, Chris Philp, expressed a strong desire to embed facial recognition technology in law enforcement activities and explore avenues for government support in this regard. 

Specifically, the integration of this technology with police body-worn video is being considered as a feasible option.

Prof Fraser Sampson, the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, emphasized the significance of this potential expansion and the valid concerns it raises about personal privacy. 

These concerns must be addressed within any future regulatory framework governing the use of facial recognition technology, as the principles of consent, trust, and public confidence are indispensable in policing.

Body-worn video cameras were initially introduced to capture evidence and document interactions between police officers and the public. These compact devices are currently capable of recording high-definition video and technically feasible to be linked to live facial recognition systems. LFR involves matching the biometric data of individuals' faces against a watchlist database. 

Ministers look to enhance policing with body-worn facial recognition technology
Female police at traffic check

This integration could enable an officer on patrol to compare the faces of hundreds, if not thousands, of people against a list of suspects, significantly streamlining the process of identifying potential criminals.

Setbacks and challenges attached

However, Sampson cautioned that LFR technology offers a range of capabilities, some of which may raise concerns among the public. He mentioned that in China, the algorithm employed in facial recognition technology can identify ethnicity and estimate age. 

Some manufacturers even claim that their systems can determine an individual's mood or level of anxiety. These extensive capabilities necessitate careful consideration and regulation to ensure they are used appropriately and responsibly.

A Home Office spokesperson reiterated the government's support for expanding the use of facial recognition technology, emphasizing its crucial role in combating serious offenses such as murder, knife crime, rape, child sexual exploitation, and terrorism. 

However, Emmanuelle Andrews of Liberty, an organization opposing any use of LFR, expressed deep concern over the government's potential rollout of this invasive technology. 

She argued that subjecting more individuals to constant surveillance and monitoring infringes upon the fundamental right to live without unwarranted intrusion by the police.