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An informed use of facial recognition technology by NZ Police

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Technology offers huge potential to unlock more effective and efficient public services. It has transformed surgical techniques, optimised transportation routes, augmented education provision, and given the justice sector new tools to administer justice intelligently.

These transformations ought to be celebrated, but often they’re not. The public narrative can focus strongly on the potential over-reach of technology and its associated risks (real or perceived).

Public servants must understand and mitigate these risks to retain the social license to embrace new technologies. The public discussion around the way Nga Pirihimana O Aotearoa | New Zealand Police use Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) is a good example of how this debate can play out and how to effectively understand and mitigate risks.

Nga Pirihimana O Aotearoa | New Zealand Police

Facial recognition technology and NZ Police

FRT is already used widely in society. Most people unlock their phone or computer simply by looking at it. FRT is also used to process passport applications, in border control, and has enormous potential across other areas of government service delivery and policy, including policing. However, it also carries a great deal of risk and there are big ethical and legal questions about its widespread use.

As Lynch et al. argued in a recent Law Foundation report, if used on a mass scale FRT could be deemed as a ‘search’ without cause in contravention of human rights and privacy legislation. There are also big questions about where images are stored, who can access them and under what conditions.

Facial recognition technology in NZ — Lynch et al. Law Foundation [PDF 2 MB]

New Zealand Police would be the first to admit that these questions need to be answered to build and retain public trust in the use of FRT if used at scale. I’ve been really impressed by the way Police, through the leadership of their Deputy CE Mark Evans, have balanced the public discussion around FRT. They’ve been clear to balance the potential benefits of this technology with the accountability required to maintain public trust in its use.

The Algorithm Charter and NZ Police

As early signatories of the Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand, Police committed to a set of actions that

  • maintain transparency around their use of these technologies
  • deliver clear public benefit and honour partnership commitments under Te Tiriti o Waitangi
  • ensure there is a focus on people who are potentially impacted by technology, not just the technology itself
  • ensure data sitting underneath technology is fit for purpose and does not create or exacerbate bias (racial bias, in particular)
  • retain human oversight of the algorithms underpinning new technology.

The Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa NZ

In practice these commitments look different for every signatory. For Police, who have a role at the heart of the community, social licence to operate is vital. Any advantages technology can offer pale in comparison to the loss of public trust if things go wrong.

With this in mind, Police are developing a suite of activities to ensure any emerging technologies are well understood, publicly accepted, and if need be, regulated. It is also critical that any impacts of technology are understood from a Te Ao Māori perspective.

A test and trial policy at NZ Police

In late 2020, Police introduced an emergent technologies policy. The policy emphasises the need to thoroughly understand and assess potential technology and its implications before testing or adopting it. Police have also acknowledged the role of policies like this in supporting the public conversation about the role of technology-enabled capabilities in New Zealand policing.

Following the introduction of this Test and Trial policy, Police convened an independent expert group to provide policy and ethical advice on use of technology. The six-member panel is chaired by Colin Gavaghan, director of the Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies at the University of Otago. Other panel members offer expertise in technology, Te Ao Māori, and ethics. They will be called together, as needed, to consider new technologies, as well as any significant enhancements to technologies already in use.

With regard to FRT, Police have commissioned experts Dr Nessa Lynch (Associate Professor, Victoria University of Wellington) and Dr Andrew Chen (Research Fellow, University of Auckland) to undertake a six-month review of FRT and its use by Police. Among other things, the review will explore the potential effects of FRT on individual and collective rights and interests, and offer insights into international best practice. The research will culminate in a paper with advice and recommendations on the safe and appropriate use of FRT in New Zealand policing.

There are still plenty of questions to answer before FRT can be safely and ethically used at scale in policing. However, I think the New Zealand Police are going about this in exactly the way the public would expect.

Ka rawe tō mahi Nga Pirihimana O Aotearoa!

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash