Do police need ethics guidance on emerging technology?


The UK’s policing minister has rejected the suggestion that police forces might need guidance on the ethical considerations of emerging technologies, despite alarm from campaigners over live facial recognition and ‘predictive policing’. One expert told Tech Monitor that such guidance would, in fact, be welcomed by the police, who are currently purchasing such systems “on the hoof”.

police technology ethics
Regional bodies could advise police forces on technology ethics, according to policing minister Kit Malthouse. (Photo by Jacques Feeney/Offside/Getty Images)

The use by police of new AI-powered technologies has prompted alarm from human rights campaigners. In October last year, the European Commission called for an outright ban on the use of facial recognition on mass CCTV footage by police, citing the risk of misidentification or prejudice. So-called ‘predictive policing’, in which AI is used to anticipate where crimes might happen, has been highly controversial, with critics arguing that it entrenches racial bias.

Nevertheless, UK police forces are pursuing many of these technologies. Last year, the Mayor of London’s Office approved a new £3m “Retrospective Facial Recognition” system that will allow police to compare faces identified in CCTV footage against archival footage. One campaigner said the system could “suppress people’s free expression, assembly and ability to live without fear”.

During a House of Lords committee hearing yesterday, Lord Peter Ricketts asked UK policing minister Kit Malthouse whether a new body is needed to advise local forces on the use of emerging technology. “Some of our witnesses have worried that across that spread of forces, not all will have the capacity to assess and evaluate this new technology being sold to them by some pretty persuasive entrepreneurs in many cases,” Lord Ricketts said.

“We have to be slightly careful not to stifle innovation,” Malthouse said in his response, and that formal procurement frameworks “tend to be generally for more mature technology”. He said that while there could be room for regional bodies advising police forces on technology ethics, he would be “concerned about setting up a parallel ethics group” on a national level, as Parliament already serves that purpose. “In the end, aren’t we the national ethics committee?”

Rick Muir, director of UK policing think tank the Police Foundation, believes many police forces would welcome a national procurement framework for emerging technologies. At the moment, he says, “the police are having to create their own framework on the hoof.”

National guidance on ethical considerations would be especially welcome, Muir says. “What’s required is a national technology ethics commission for policing, which can review and provide guidance of the use of new technologies,” he says.

Muir rejects the claim that this would stifle innovation, adding that if the government is concerned about digital innovation in policing, it should invest in the infrastructure that supports it. “The Police National Computer is 48 years old,” he says. “It’s running on unsupported technology. It’s a complete disaster.”

Malthouse’s comments reflect the UK’s continued divergence from Europe in favouring innovation over governance. Earlier this week, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) ordered the Europol police agency to delete petabytes worth of data, including records of at least a quarter of a million current or former terror and serious crime suspects. “Europol has not complied with the EDPS’s requests to define an appropriate data retention period to filter and to extract the personal data permitted for analysis under Europol regulation,” the watchdog said.


Claudia Glover is a staff reporter on Tech Monitor.


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