Face recognition camera

Essex research and expertise informs facial recognition judgement

  • Law
  • Society

University of Essex 


The use of new technologies, while often beneficial, can pose ethical, human rights and legal issues. South Wales Police use of live facial recognition technology (FRT) was found by the national Court of Appeal to be in breach of human rights and lack adequate legal basis. Expert evidence from the Essex research team helped inform the judgement.

Research focus

The issue regards the use of live facial recognition technology by the police in South Wales. The technology enables the police to take live images of people passing through a particular area and automatically compare them with a ‘watchlist’ of known individuals with the aim of addressing crime or other harms. The concern is that this practice constitutes a technological intensification of public surveillance that, if not used appropriately and lawfully, engages a range of human rights and could have consequences for the functioning of democracy.

Debate exists over the extent to which new surveillance technologies are authorised through general common law powers, which may not have adequate safeguards, and whether they require an explicit legal basis. The case was brought to the Court of Appeal on the basis that police uses of this technology were incompatible with legal safeguards concerning human rights, equality and data protection.

The independent, research-led expertise of the Essex team was called upon, including that of Prof Pete Fussey who directs the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy and is research director for the ESRC Human Rights, Big Data and Technology project at Essex. Prof Fussey and Dr Murray conducted the world’s only independent research observing live police FRT operations, while Prof Woods and Prof Fussey have served in an advisory capacity for the national surveillance regulator.

Key findings

The three Essex researchers contributed to a submission to the Court of Appeal by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner. They drew on the findings of their study into the trial use of the technology by the Metropolitan Police Service, published in 2019. This found that deployments at that time were not ‘in accordance with the law’ and that excessive discretion was given to police in determining who should be put on a watchlist and where to deploy cameras.

The Commissioner’s role includes providing advice on the effective, appropriate, proportionate and transparent use of surveillance camera systems and to encourage compliance with the code of practice.

Impact and outcomes

  • The Court of Appeal overturned a previous legal decision in favour of South Wales Police.
  • The Court of Appeal’s findings were that the South Wales Police use of live FRT lacked an explicit legal basis, and that it is not equivalent to the use of CCTV.
  • The conclusions drawn by the Court of Appeal were consistent with the conclusions drawn by the researchers from their analysis of trial Metropolitan Police use of the technology in 2019.
  • The case highlighted the fact that new, more specific legislation is required.
  • Many issues remain to be addressed, including the broader societal impact of facial recognition.
  • The research team were subsequently called on to support the development of national guidance governing police uses of FRT and their expertise was included directly into this new policy.
  • The research has also influenced public debate and policy decisions in many countries, including informing the position adopted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency.


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