Face Value: Call for a formal halt to Police use of facial recognition technology

What is Facial Recognition Technology (FRT)?  

Facial recognition technology (FRT) is an umbrella term that is used to describe a suite of applications that perform a specific task using the geometric features of a human face to verify, identify or even categorize an individual.  

What are the human rights concerns?  

Facial recognition technologies pose a direct threat to the enjoyment of the rights to privacy and peaceful assembly, among other rights. This is particularly concerning given there is no direct regulation of this technology in Aotearoa. An example of how this technology can impact human rights is its use by authorities overseas to track down protesters. Authorities have used images captured through CCTV and other video surveillance devices and run them through facial recognition software to perform face analysis or search for potential face matches against a designated database.   

There is significant risk that this technology will exacerbate systemic racism and disproportionately impact people of colour. The software has higher rates of false positives amongst people of colour, which creates a greater risk of misidentification and as a result, false arrest. Even when it “works”, it can exacerbate discriminatory policing and prevent the free and safe exercise of peaceful assembly, by acting as a tool of mass surveillance.  

How is FRT being used in Aotearoa?  

This technology is used by different agencies in Aotearoa, for example Immigration uses the technology at SmartGates at border control. A recent report by the New Zealand Law Foundation into FRT noted that Education providers in New Zealand have looked to FRT as a means of monitoring attendance. These examples show the technology is here, being used or explored, and its potential scope enormous.   

An area we are particularly concerned about is the use of FRT by Police. A recent report (authored by Lynch, Campbell, Purshouse, Betkier) notes: the “New Zealand Police have stated that they will not use this technology, but have the capability, and indeed recently concluded a deal to purchase a new system which has this capability. While the statement that Police have no plans to use the technology is welcome, there is currently no official position on this, and no legal or regulatory barrier to the police deployment of this technology”. So while Police have said they’re not currently using this technology, there’s nothing to stop them changing their mind, and since the research last year we don’t know if the Police have changed their stance on its use.  

As the report notes: “The policy of non-deployment appears dependent on a current Police leadership position and the management lines within the police. We do not consider that there is currently a case for live FRT public space monitoring as a legitimate and proportionate policing tool”.  

We welcome the announcement by the Police that they have engaged individual experts to review and make recommendations on Police use of FRT, however we believe this needs to be part of a nation-wide conversation that involves Māori and groups likely to be disproportionately impacted by this technology. Also, FRT has potential use across many agencies therefore we need to think about its use across the State and different agencies, not just the Police. In any case, while these issues are worked out we’d like to see the Police formally required to halt any use of FRT.  

What’s the concern in Aotearoa?  

There is currently no regulation in New Zealand that directly regulates FRT, although there are regulations that are relevant, such as the Privacy Act.  

We’re particularly concerned about the use of FRT for identification purposes, when used by law enforcement. This is because its use by law enforcement is especially high-stakes – it can result in arrest and detention, causing significant harm. Given this we would like an immediate halt to any use of it by the Police in Aotearoa so there can be a nation-wide conversation about how we use this technology, when it should and should not be used, and what safeguards are needed.   

What is Amnesty’s position? Why this position?  

Globally, Amnesty is calling for a ban on the use of FRT for identification purposes. A recent report (authored by Lynch, Campbell, Purshouse, Betkier) into FRT called for an immediate moratorium on live automatic facial recognition by police, due to its impact on individual and societal rights. We would like to support this call as a first step in our campaign, and would also like to see the implications of this technology and decisions about its use is part of a nation-wide conversation, with Māori and groups likely to be disproportionately impacted by this technology part of decision-making.   

Add your name to our urgent petition to the Minister of Police – Hon. Poto Williams asking for a formal halt on the use of facial recognition technology by Police in Aotearoa.

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Read the full report  

Click here to read the report Facial Recognition Technology in New Zealand: Towards a Legal and Ethical Framework authored by Nessa Lynch, Liz Campbell, Joe Purshouse and Marcin Betkier.