South Wales Police did not do enough to ensure automated facial recognition technology deployed on two occasions did not have a racial or gender bias, the Court of Appeal has said in a ruling that could have significant implications for police forces.

Handing down judgment in a case brought by Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, the appeal court said South Wales Police did not comply with the public sector equality duty (PSED) prior to or in the course of using the technology on 21 December 2017, 27 March 2018 and on an ongoing basis.

The appeal was heard by Sir Terence Etherton, master of the rolls, Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Lord Justice Singh.

They said: ‘Public concern about the relationship between the police and BAME communities has not diminished in the years since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report. The reason why the PSED is so important is that it requires a public authority to give thought to the potential impact of a new policy which may appear to be neutral but which may turn out in fact to have a disproportionate impact on certain sections of the population.’

The judges said South Wales Police did not do all it could to fulfil its duty. ‘We would hope that, as [facial recognition] is a novel and controversial technology, all police forces that intend to use it in the future would wish to satisfy themselves that everything reasonable which could be done had been done in order to make sure that the software used does not have a racial or gender bias,’ they added.

Bridges was represented by civil liberties group Liberty.

Liberty solicitor Megan Goulding said: ‘Facial recognition discriminates against people of colour, and it is absolutely right that the court found that South Wales Police had failed in their duty to investigate and avoid discrimination. It is time for the government to recognise the serious dangers of this intrusive technology. Facial recognition is a threat to our freedom - it needs to be banned.’

South Wales Police said today's judgment helpfully pointed to a limited number of policy areas requiring attention.

Chief constable Matt Jukes said: ‘We have already placed further focus on one concern. As our work with facial recognition has been developing, international concern about potential bias in algorithms has grown. We are pleased that the court has acknowledged that there was no evidence of bias or discrimination in our use of the technology. But questions of public confidence, fairness and transparency are vitally important, and the Court of Appeal is clear that further work is needed to ensure that there is no risk of us breaching of our duties around equality.

‘In 2019 we commissioned academic analysis of this question and although the current pandemic has disrupted its progress, this work has restarted and will inform our response to the Court of Appeal’s conclusions.’

South Wales Police said it will continue deploying the technology when it is satisfied it can meet the specific points raised by the appeal court.