Watchdog responds to facial recognition trial at Meadowhall in Sheffield

Facial recognition trials carried out on unsuspecting shoppers at Meadowhall in Sheffield have prompted a call for tighter regulation.

Thursday, 30th January 2020, 3:15 pm

British Land, which owns the shopping centre, teamed up with South Yorkshire Police to test the controversial technology in early 2018 but members of the public were not informed at the time and details of the pilot were only revealed last August following an investigation by civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.

It has since emerged that South Yorkshire Police shared three photos of serious offenders and one of a vulnerable missing person with Meadowhall.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's File on 4, Tony Porter, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) for England and Wales, has now called for government inspections into police use of the technology.

Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, where facial recognition technology was used in 2018
Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, where facial recognition technology was used in 2018

"I think if the public are going to be reassured, there does need to be a very clear oversight mechanism," he said.

"And I would say that at the moment isn't obvious. I think the next step is for the government to address that gap in each and every circumstance that is required."

Home Office guidelines already state that the use of such software must be ‘clearly justified and proportionate’.

A spokeswoman for British Land said: “In 2018 we operated two short trials of facial recognition technology (FRT) at Meadowhall. The number of individuals with access to this database was strictly limited.

“All personal data processed during the trialling of the FRT system was deleted immediately after each trial was completed. We do not currently have any plans to operate FRT at any of our assets.”

Facial recognition, which was used for weeks at Meadowhall between January and March 2018, involves creating a digital map of people's features and checking for matches with people already on police files.

A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman said: “Meadowhall advised us of its intention to carry out a trial using facial recognition technology within the centre, which we supported in order to develop an understanding of opportunities associated with this technology.”

Facial Recognition: Who's Watching You? aired on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, January 28, and is now available on BBC Sounds.