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The UK government has largely rejected the findings and recommendations of a House of Lords inquiry into the police’s use of algorithmic technologies, claiming there is already “a comprehensive network of checks and balances”.
Following a 10-month investigation into the use of advanced algorithmic technologies by UK police, including facial recognition and various crime “prediction” tools, the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee (JHAC) described the situation as “a new Wild West”, characterised by a lack of strategy, accountability and transparency from the top down.
In a report published on 30 March, the JHAC said: “The use of advanced technologies in the application of the law poses a real and current risk to human rights and to the rule of law.
“Unless this is acknowledged and addressed, the potential benefits of using advanced technologies may be outweighed by the harm that will occur and the distrust it will create.”
Throughout the inquiry, the JHAC heard from expert witnesses that the UK police force is introducing new technologies with very little scrutiny or training, continuing to deploy new technologies without clear evidence about their efficacy or impacts, and have conflicting interests with their own tech suppliers.
In its official response to the inquiry’s findings, however, the government has said that while “the report draws welcome attention to an increasingly important issue … we think it is important to retain a long-term perspective”.
It added that many technologies regularly used in a policing context, such as fingerprints and DNA, were once considered controversial, but are now validated and widely accepted. “The government will empower and support them to go further, taking opportunities to simplify and consolidate structures when there is likely to be a positive impact on consistency, accountability and transparency,” it said.
Protecting the public
The government further added that while MPs set the legal framework providing police with their powers and duties, it is then for the police themselves to determine how best to use new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive modelling to protect the public.
“The existing oversight bodies monitor how the police carry out their duties and ensure safeguards and standards are upheld. HMICFRS is responsible for inspecting and reporting on the efficiency and effectiveness of all police forces. This includes how forces use existing and emerging technologies to prevent and detect crime,” it said, adding that “the future capabilities of artificial intelligence in automated decision making will act to improve the justice system by augmenting rather than replacing existing processes”.
Policing minister Kit Malthouse previously told the JHAC in January 2022 that the use of advanced algorithmic technologies by police should be tested in court rather than defined by new legislation, arguing that new laws would be too restrictive and therefore “stifle innovation”.
He added that the use of algorithmic technologies by UK police was already controlled by a “web of legislation”, and that a “principles-based” framework is preferable to creating legal rules because “there are always areas of nuance and circumstance which you can’t prescribe in law”.
Government rejects JHAC recommendations
The JHAC made a number of recommendations following its inquiry, including establishing a national oversight body (with the power to implement moratoria) to set minimum scientific standards, certify new tech and audit deployments; set enhanced procurement guidelines to help police become “proficient customers” of new tech; set up local and regional ethics committees to deal with questions around necessity and proportionality; and establish a “duty of candour”, alongside a public register of police algorithms so that regulators and the general public alike can understand exactly how new tools are being deployed.
The JHAC also recommended that “the government bring forward primary legislation which embodies general principles, and which is supported by detailed regulations setting minimum standards” because “this approach would strike the right balance between concerns that an overly prescriptive law could stifle innovation and the need to ensure safe and ethical use of technologies”.
The government has rejected all of these recommendations. For example, on creating a new national oversight body and certification system, the response said “the government is not persuaded by the arguments put forward … while certification can work in some contexts, it can also create false confidence and be prohibitively costly”.
“We are similarly not persuaded by the suggestion a national body would play a role in enforcing moratoria … [as] Ministerial sign off and moratoriums are a resource heavy process which can create significant delays in the roll out of new equipment,” it added.
On establishing ethics committees, it said that while the government will continue to support police forces as they develop ways to get local feedback, it “does not agree that there should be a mandate for ethics groups across all forces or that these should be on a statutory footing”. “While ethics groups may provide decision makers with useful advice, only Members of Parliament and the democratically elected Police Crime Commissioners are empowered to act on behalf of the public,” it said.
In response to the JHAC calls for new primary legislation, the government said “there are already many safeguards”, adding that “the existing legal framework requires the safe and ethical deployment of new technologies”.
It further added: “With respect to policing, the Government does not agree that further central guidance on accountability is needed, because it is the role of local Police and Crime Commissioners to hold their local forces to account as the elected representative of the local population.”
Speaking during a launch event for the Ryder Review – an independent legal review published on 29 June that highlights the urgent need for new biometrics-specific legislation to govern both public and private sector uses – JHAC chair Baroness Hamwee said: “I can’t pretend to be happy with the government’s response … we are all, I think, key supporters of innovation, but not at any cost.”
“You want public trust and confidence in what we as a society are subject to and it [the government response] misses the complexity of all this,” she added. “So I’m sorry that the government, who are yet to have a debate about this, should see us as being anything other than wanting positive progress.”
Speaking with Computer Weekly, Hamwee said: “It is discouraging that the Home Office appears to reject the notion that such matters are not being addressed adequately. They are essential to public trust and confidence, which in turn are essential bases for innovation.
She added that although the inquiry noted there was a complex network of around 30 overlapping bodies involved in the oversight and regulation of police tech, making it hard to see who is responsible for what. “The government is apparently satisfied,” said Hamwee. “It is disheartening that constructive ideas are not taken on board as a contribution to ensuring this fast-moving area of work meets quality standards.”