Current live facial recognition technology is not fit for use by Police Scotland, Holyrood’s Justice Subcommittee on Policing concludes in a report published today.
Facial recognition technology works by flagging up suspects in real time, by cross-referencing live images picked up by CCTV cameras against police databases. Police officers, or the operators, verify the matches to ensure that they are accurate before proceeding to engage with possible suspects. However, Police Scotland’s earlier assessment that it is likely to have a positive impact on equalities and human rights stands in stark contrast, the report says, to the evidence received by the subcommittee.
This evidence raised significant concerns about the level of inaccuracy and ineffectiveness of live facial recognition software. It was also said that if certain types of faces, such as females or ethnic minorities, under-represented in training datasets, this bias "will feed forward into the use of the technology by human operators. There have been high-profile scientific concerns that there is intrinsic potential racial and gender bias within LFR systems".
Questions were also raised about whether it was necessary for the police service to introduce the use of live facial recognition technology, whether mass surveillance of the public by the police service was proportionate, and whether the public have trust in its use.
Police Scotland previously outlined its ambition to introduce live facial recognition technology in its Policing 2026 strategy, though indicated more recently that it is not currently planning to do so. The MSPs state that before it does, it needs to demonstrate the legal basis it would rely on for its use; the technology’s compliance with human rights and data protection legislation; and that the biases in the software which discriminate against ethnic minorities and women have been eliminated. Without these safeguards in place, any investment in the technology would be "unjustifiable".
The report also calls on the Scottish Government to explicitly regulate the use of live facial recognition technology, not only by police but also other public sector organisations such as local authorities, as well as private companies.
While the MSPs believe Police Scotland should have the best available technology to keep people safe and combat crime, they have asked it to remove references to live facial recognition from its 2026 strategy if there is no intention to go ahead with the introduction in the stated timescale.
They further request that the Scottish Police Authority and the new Scottish Biometrics Commissioner (if the legislation is passed to create the post) review police use of retrospective facial recognition technology – the scanning of pre-recorded footage. In particular, the review should consider the impact of police accessing images held illegally on the UK Police National Database, or on IT systems inherited from legacy Scottish forces, which contain images of people not convicted of any crime.
Committee convener John Finnie MSP commented: "The subcommittee is reassured that Police Scotland have no plans to introduce live facial recognition technology at this time. It is clear that this technology is in no fit state to be rolled out or indeed to assist the police with their work.
"Current live facial recognition technology throws up far too many ‘false positives’, and contains inherent biases that are known to be discriminatory.
"Our inquiry has also shone light on other issues with facial recognition technology that we now want the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Government to consider. Not least amongst these are the legal challenges against similar technologies in England & Wales, and the apparent lack of law explicitly governing its use in Scotland – by any organisation.
"So whether this technology is being used by private companies, public authorities or the police, the Scottish Government needs to ensure there is a clear legal framework to protect the public and police alike from operating in a facial recognition Wild West."