Police use of facial recognition technology infringes citizens' rights to privacy but may still be lawful, the High Court has ruled, dismissing on all grounds a claim for judicial review on the grounds of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Data Protection Act 2018.

In Edward Bridges v Chief Constable of South Wales Police, civil liberties campaigner Edward Bridges told the High Court in Cardiff that the use of automatic facial recognition (AFR) technology by South Wales Police was contrary to convention rights and data protection legislation.

Bridges believes his face had been scanned twice by police cameras, once in Cardiff city centre and once at a peaceful protest. In both cases, his data would have been automatically and immediately discarded after being found not to match that of people of interest to the police. 

In judgment, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Mr Justice Swift found that AFR did interfere with the right to private life under Article 8 of the European convention. They ruled that even the momentary storing of biometric data is enough to trigger Article 8.

However, the court ruled that there was a lawful basis for AFR’s use and the legal framework applied by the police was proportionate. It said: ‘The infringement of Article 8 rights…occurs within a legal framework that is sufficient to satisfy the “in accordance with the law” requirement in Article 8.’

The judges noted that AFR was used for a limited time, covered a limited footprint and sought to identify particular individuals (not including Bridges) whose presence was of justifiable interest to the police.

Fiona Barton QC, of 5 Essex Court’s AFR Team, said: ‘This case should not be taken as a green light to go ahead with the use of AFR in all and any circumstances: it was decided on specific facts, within a specific legal framework applicable to certain public authorities….It is not a matter of one size fits all.’

Bridges was supported by campaign group Liberty. Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: ‘This disappointing judgment does not reflect the very serious threat that facial recognition poses to our rights and freedoms. Facial recognition is a highly intrusive surveillance technology that allows the police to monitor and track us all.’

Bridges plans to appeal the judgment.