Facial Recognition: U.K. Plans to Monitor Migrant Offenders Are Unethical – and They Won’t Work

In the case of offenders taking photographs of their faces several times a day, we could argue the breach of privacy is in the national security interest for most people, if the crime is serious. The government is entitled to make such a decision as it is responsible for the safety of its citizens. For minor offences, however, face recognition may be too strong a measure.

In its plan, the Home Office has not differentiated between minor and serious offenders; nor has it provided convincing evidence that facial recognition improves people’s compliance with immigration law.

Worldwide, we know facial recognition is more likely to be used to police people of color by monitoring their movements more often than those of white people. This is despite the fact that facial recognition systems are more accurate with lighter than darker skin tones.

Taking a picture of your face and uploading it five times a day could feel demeaning. Glitches with darker skin tones could make checking into the system more than just a frustrating experience. There could be serious consequences for offenders if the technology fails.

The flaws in facial recognition might also create national security issues for the government. For example, it might misidentify the face of one person as another. Facial recognition technology is not ready for something as important as national security.

The Alternative
Another option the government is considering for migrant offenders is location tracking. Electronic monitoring already keeps track of people with criminal records in the UK using ankle tags, and it would make sense to apply the same technology to migrant and non-migrant offenders equally.

Location tracking comes with its own ethical issues for personal privacy and racial surveillance. Due to the intrusive nature of electronic monitoring, some people who wear these devices can suffer from depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. But location tracking technology gives options, at least. For example, data can be handled sensitively by following data privacy guidelines such as the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018. We can minimize the amount of location data we collect by only tracking someone’s location once or twice a day. We can anonymize the data, only making people’s names visible when and where necessary.

The UK Home Office could use location data to flag up suspicious activity, such as if an offender enters an area from which they have been barred. For minor offenders, we need not track the person’s exact location but only the general area, such as a postcode or town.

As a society, we should strive to maintain the dignity and privacy of people, except in the most serious cases. More importantly, we should ensure technology does not have the potential to discriminate against a group of people based on their ethnicity. The law and regulation should apply equally to all people.

The Home Office spokesperson added: “The public expects us to monitor convicted foreign national offenders … Foreign criminals should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them, and the government is doing everything possible to increase the number of foreign national offenders being deported.”

Namrata Primlani is Doctoral Researcher, Northumbria University, Newcastle. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.