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Facial Recognition Technology

Date of request: 5 October 2020
Reference: 992/20


Please tell me which Facial Searching software is used by the Constabulary? And who provides it?


Avon and Somerset Constabulary uses facial searching through the Police National Database. This is provided by the Home Office. We do not use any facial recognition software.

In respect of covert use of automatic facial recognition Avon and Somerset Constabulary can neither confirm nor deny that information is or is not held by virtue of Section 24(2) National Security and Section 31(3) Law Enforcement.

Sections 31 and 24 are both prejudice based and qualified exemptions, therefore there is a requirement to articulate the harm that would be caused in confirming or not whether information is held as well as carrying out a public interest test. Please see this below:

Harm considerations

Any disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act is a release of information to the public at large. Whilst not questioning the motives of the applicant, confirming or denying that any other information relating to the covert practise of facial recognition is held would inform criminals of the capacity, tactical abilities and capabilities of Avon and Somerset Police, allowing them to target specific areas in the UK to conduct their criminal/terrorist activities.  Confirming or denying the specific circumstances in which the police service may or may not deploy the use of facial recognition would lead to an increased harm to covert investigations and would compromise law enforcement. This would be to the detriment of providing an efficient policing service and a failure in providing a duty of care to all members of the public.

The threat from terrorism cannot be ignored.  It is generally recognised that the international security landscape is increasingly complex and unpredictable. The UK Government has published the threat level, based upon current intelligence and the UK continues to face a sustained threat from violent extremists and terrorists and the current threat level is set at ‘substantial’.

It is well established that police forces use covert tactics and surveillance to gain intelligence in order to counteract criminal behaviour. It has been previously documented in the media that many terrorist incidents have been thwarted due to intelligence gained by these means.

Confirming or denying whether any information is or is not held relating to the covert use of facial recognition technology would limit operational capabilities as criminals/terrorists would gain a greater understanding of police methods and techniques, enabling offenders to take steps to counter them.  It may also suggest the limitations of police capabilities in this area, which may further encourage criminal/terrorist activity by exposing potential vulnerabilities. This detrimental effect is increased if the request is made to several different law enforcement bodies.  In addition to the local criminal fraternity now being better informed, those intent on organised crime throughout the UK will be able to ‘map’ where the use of certain tactics are or are not deployed.  This can be useful information to those committing crimes. It would have the likelihood of identifying location-specific operations which would ultimately compromise police tactics, operations and future prosecutions as criminals could counteract the measures used against them.

Any information identifying the focus of policing activity could be used to the advantage of terrorists or criminal organisations.  Information that undermines the operational integrity of these activities will adversely affect public safety and have a negative impact on both National Security and Law Enforcement.

Public Interest Test

Factors favouring confirming or denying whether any other information is held for Section 24

The public is entitled to know where their public funds are being spent and a better informed public can take steps to protect themselves.

Factors against confirming or denying whether any other information is held for Section 24

By confirming or denying the use of specialist techniques could render Security measures less effective. This could lead to the compromise of ongoing or future operations to protect the security or infra-structure of the UK and increase the risk of harm to the public.

Factors favouring confirming or denying whether any other information is held for Section 31

Better awareness may reduce crime or lead to more information from the public, and the public would be able to take steps to protect themselves.

Factors against confirming or denying whether any other information is held for Section 31

By confirming or denying whether such techniques were used would compromise law enforcement tactics and undermine the partnership approach which would hinder the prevention or detection of crime. This would impact on police resources, more crime would then be committed and individuals placed at risk.

Balance test

The security of the country is of paramount importance and the police service will not divulge whether information is or is not held if to do so could undermine national security or compromise law enforcement. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing techniques and in this case providing assurance that the police service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat posed by the criminal fraternity, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding both national security and the integrity of investigations and operations in this area of policing.

Therefore it is our opinion that for these issues the balancing test for confirming or denying whether any information is held regarding these techniques is not made out.

None of the above can be viewed as an inference that the information sought does or does not exist.

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