Facial Recognition Unmasked

Author: | 10 Nov 2020

Face coverings are a fact of life in the pandemic. It is mandatory to wear them in shops, schools and on university campuses. Slowly they’re becoming part of prison life too.

Recently masks have sparked a fresh debate about police surveillance.

Elliot Tyler, a Longford scholar who is a cyber security and forensics student at Portsmouth University has been delving into the controversial policing technology…

For a long time, I have been wary of facial recognition technology – software capable of matching a human face, either from from a digital image or a video frame, against a database of ‘wanted’ faces – used without people’s consent. I moved away from my London birthplace three years ago but returned to the city every so often to meet and have a drink with school friends. It always concerned me that my evening could be brought to a halt at any point by police officers scanning my face and determining I was somebody ‘wanted’, which I most certainly was not, having paid any debt to society that I’d previously owed.

Despite being very familiar with the ways of the police through my work as a police cadet, I did not trust them to exercise their duties impartially, responsibly and fairly. Little did I know that before long a global pandemic would see people hiding their faces, potentially disrupting the captured images.

Broken Images 

In the summer, a document leaked to an American publication outlined the worries of US agencies that face masks, now commonplace due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could ‘break’ facial recognition. The document, released as part of what became known as the ‘BlueLeaks’ hack, emphasised the possibility of ‘violent adversaries’ using protective masks to evade biometric identification algorithms – in other words, donning a mask to cheat identification.

Now that coronavirus has changed the world, and face coverings routinely cover the mouth and nose – key distinguishing features for anyone – the debate has taken on a new dimension. Commentators from both sides of the debate have raised concerns about how the wearing of masks could affect the accuracy of the technology.

To this day, it remains unclear, due to the regular emergence of new, conflicting survey results, whether the general public supports this new policing initiative. Opponents of the technology suggest there is a risk to citizens’ privacy. In a free world, individuals are supposedly allowed a choice when it comes to matters of consent.  However sceptics observe that permission can be simply non-existent when it comes to facial recognition. And anyway, importantly, those accused of crimes still have rights. Supporters claim if you go about your daily life in a law-abiding way, you have nothing to fear and everything to gain from effective identification to keep our streets safer.

What the experts say

I took it upon myself to consult three facial recognition experts with different perspectives on this hotly debated policing technique. First up, Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, the President of the Superintendents’ Association.

The public needs to be kept safe,’ Griffiths said to me firmly. ‘And that is achieved using CCTV, ANPR (number plate recognition), speed cameras, and other surveillance technologies.’

Our conversation continued with me citing US academics, who claim that effective facial recognition technology can prevent false arrests by quickly and accurately identifying faces.

It certainly isn’t the only method we rely on.’ He was keen not to be too gung-ho. ‘Data involves responsibility,’ I was told. ‘We need to be satisfied that the use of any data can support the police in their goals.’

The list of benefits from effective use of facial recognition, according to Griffiths, are early detection of ‘wanted’ individuals, allowing the efficient scrambling of police resources so officers can secure themselves and the public, possibly saving lives. Police officers can, therefore, spend their time maintaining order on the streets instead of searching aimlessly for suspects. It was explained to me that developments in technology should be embraced by police forces, but only where its use is necessary and proportionate. Police will operate with scrutiny, accountability and oversight when using personal data, Griffiths emphasised.

Lord Blair, Longford Lecture 2019

As a brief side note, in November 2019, at the annual Longford Lecture, I paid close attention to a delivery by Lord Ian Blair, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 2005 to 2008. Lord Blair explored the topic of ‘Where Next for Policing and Criminal Justice’. Concerned about a ‘tattered’ justice system, he promoted the wider roll-out of body worn cameras for future effective and consensual policing. Yet, surprisingly, he neglected to mention the ever-emerging matter of authorities’ use of facial recognition technology. The omission still intrigues me – but that’s one for another time.

Back to my second expert in this fraught field. Richard Lewis, recently retired Deputy Chief Constable of South Wales Police held a similar view to Griffiths. ‘Facial recognition can be a powerful technology for crime detection and prevention,’ he told me, adding, ‘when used appropriately.’

South Wales Police were this summer subject to legal action, brought by a father of two, Ed Bridges, who objected to his image being captured on a lunch break in Cardiff City Centre and again at a peaceful protest. With the support of the campaign group Liberty, the Court of Appeal found that the specific uses of facial recognition were unlawful.

But the Court also found its use was a ‘proportionate’ interference with human rights, as the benefits outweighed the impact on Bridges.

After the ruling, South Wales Police, who have used this type of identification method at big sporting fixtures, concerts, and other large events since 2017, said they could work with the ruling. A ‘factsheet’ produced by South Wales Police, which was sent to me before the Court decision, shows that in 2019, facial recognition technology resulted in twenty-two arrests and disposals at Welsh music and sporting events. It also rebuts common concerns about gender or racial bias within the technology. Typically, black men are thought to be disproportionately picked out.

The future of the surveillance business

Whatever the effect of face masks on the camera technology, I expect civil liberty campaigners will continue to voice their concerns about the premise of this policing technology. London’s Metropolitan Police is said to be the largest police force outside of China to use facial recognition, dubbed an ‘authoritarian mass surveillance tool’ by Big Brother Watch. Their spokesperson told me that public spaces are being turned into biometric surveillance zones, without any clear legal basis or authority, and contrary to the police rationale. They emphasised concerns about biased targeting of people of a certain ethnicity or demographic.

Be under no illusion, surveillance is big business. At the start of the year it was estimated that by 2024, the global facial recognition market would generate £5.5 billion of revenue. Of course, in the new post-COVID world, that may no longer be the case.

So where does this contentious technology head in the policing of tomorrow? In England and Wales, the police’s technology is still in a developmental stage, with three universities currently working with the Home Office to improve recognition accuracy.

This is by no means the end of the debate; in fact, I would say it’s merely the beginning.


The power of letter-writing

Author: | 6 Apr 2020

The power of a letter in a crisis and beyond by mentor Clare Lewis

 .like someone extending their hand out, reaching across a divide

In the current Covid-19 lockdown, a hand of friendship in the form of a letter could be an extremely simple and effective way for mentors to help break through the visible and invisible walls of isolation that surround their mentees. Especially if they are in prison.

For the past three years, I have had the privilege of mentoring James (as I am going to call him here), a talented and hardworking Longford Scholar studying inside for an OU degree. The opportunities for face-to-face meetings at the two prisons he has been in so far are limited – I aim to visit once an academic term – and digital forms of contact are not an option. Although the prison education officers are responsive to emails and willing to act as go-betweens, I feel it’s not fair to take advantage of their good nature. So, in order to maintain more regular and specific contact with James, I have taken to letter-writing.

In the footsteps of history...

We are following a path starting in Ancient India, Ancient Egypt through Rome, Greece and China. Archives of correspondence, whether for personal, diplomatic or business reasons, are also an invaluable primary source for historical research. In the 17th and 18th century letters were used to self-educate as well as offering the opportunity to practice critical reading, self-expressive writing, polemical writing, and the exchange of ideas with like-minded others.

One of the first novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, was composed entirely of letters by a daughter to her parents, the epistolary method giving the novel its sense of realism. In today’s digital world letters tend to be the generated by computer, written for business reasons and arrive in brown envelopes. A handwritten letter is a luxury.

A unique personal touch….

I initiated my letter-writing with much more humble ambitions – a desire to let James know that I was thinking of him and supporting him, albeit not in person. I can only imagine how much motivation it takes to knuckle down to work when you are remote learning. Fortunately, he is an incredibly self-motivated scholar and probably doesn’t need prompts, but I hoped that a letter would help him feel connected to the wider world and more specifically to the Longford Trust network.

Whatever the intention, the impact of a letter, however brief or mundane, cannot be overestimated. A letter is capable of generating a tangible feeling. It’s as if someone has extended their hand out and reached across a divide. It is akin to a person actually being in a room with you.

Letters are also powerful tools to convey kinship and thoughtfulness. The idea that someone has taken time out of his or her day  – everyone has other stuff to do – to sit down and write, find an envelope, look up the address, get a stamp and finally post it can really boost how someone feels and lift a mood. The words go way beyond what is actually written on the page bringing the writer’s personality and voice to life, similar to reading a novel where it’s possible to create a whole visual picture as you read.

What to talk about ….

Like everyone, I can find a blank piece of paper daunting. Have I got anything interesting to say? Can I express myself well enough? What should I talk about? What would James like to hear about? But I’ve decided it is better to not worry about these things and just write, unfettered by any worries of whether it is going to be good enough, long enough, interesting enough.

It almost doesn’t matter in the end. It’s the thought that counts and the sentiment it conveys. Having said that, James does write a very accomplished letter, so I do try hard to match his eloquence!

In the context of writing to James I am sometimes unsure if I am bound by any rules of what might be considered suitable topics of conversation. Are letters subject to censorship? Can I include press cuttings? But I am confident the team at the Longford Trust can answer any questions I might have.

PS Don’t forget…..

Before writing this blog, I asked the team if they had any advice. Jacob Dunne, who moderates the trust’s secure online platform for scholars and mentors (contact him at slack@longfordtrust.org to find out more), made the excellent point that obtaining stamps can be a problem for inmates. So from now I will include a stamp in any letter I write to James.

However, I am conscious that when I write I don’t expect a response. It is something done for its own sake. So I will always include a proviso that the stamp can be used for someone else.



If you are a scholar or mentor keeping in touch by letter we provide a confidential forwarding service through our PO Box address: Longford Trust, PO Box 64302, London, NW6 9JP. We recommend letters to scholars in prison include a stamped addressed envelope.