Head hunt: how the search for Elvis signals a threat to journalism

Article originally published in the December 2019 editor of NUJ Informed.

Each September, Porthcawl is alive with white jumpsuits, improbable sideburns and gyroscopic hips as 40,000 Elvis impersonators descend on the Welsh resort. “Arrests are very rare, the whole event is like a huge Elvis party,” says Peter Phillips organiser of the 20-year-old annual event. Even Cliff Richard fans enjoy a warm welcome, he adds. 

For the past three years, however, as the “Elvises” have encouraged the jailhouse to rock, South Wales Police (SWP) officers have discreetly filmed revellers and utilised facial-recognition software to sift the resulting feed for ‘undesirables’.

And while combing the tribute acts for terrorists probably risks no more than ridicule, the potential threat to journalism of the unregulated use of such technology is all too real. 

“As soon as it became possible to use phone data to identify individuals, police forces started using them to search for journalists’ sources,” says NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. “The cases of Mark Bulstrode, Tom Newton-Dunn and Sally Murrer are but a few of many instances. Today, facial recognition is almost entirely without legal regulation. I would be amazed if journalists have not already been targeted.” 

Stanistreet is not alone in raising concerns.

Paul Wiles, the government’s Biometrics Commissioner says: “We desperately need fresh legislation that regulates use of these second-generation biometric identification, and those rules need to enshrine journalistic rights to protect sources.”

His counterpart the Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Palmer is similarly worried. “The first court case [relating to the use of facial recognition by the SWP] is now subject to appeal. It will ask is whether there is a legal framework to use that technology in the first place. The court has said that it could be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the common law can be quite fluid.” 

Whatever the outcome of the current election, the issue may struggle to gain traction. Against this backdrop, a multi-party campaign calls on UK police forces and private security companies to immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance. Supported by MPs (at the time of writing) David Davis, Diane Abbot, Jo Swinson and Caroline Lucas, it is also endorsed by numerous civil liberties groups, academics and lawyers. 

The clamour for regulation has been joined by the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. “The absence of a statutory code that speaks to the specific challenges posed by LFR will increase the likelihood of legal failures and undermine public confidence in its use,” she has written. “[My] key recommendation is [for the] government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice on the deployment of live facial recognition.”

Notwithstanding these concerns, SWP’s “facial recognition vans” have become a familiar sight at sporting events, concerts and demonstrations in Cardiff. And the Welsh experience is not unusual.

In Leicestershire similar kit was used to check fans at a heavy metal festival against a Europol database. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police surveilled the crowds on Remembrance Sunday to try to weed out stalkers and people with mental health issues.

In London the private landlords of the development behind King’s Cross station were given access to the Met Police facial recognition database to scan shoppers’ faces. This scheme was abandoned after a public outcry

Similar technology is also thought to be in use in the Irish Republic. The Garda Síochána’s Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021 specifically committed to its use. 

SWP makes a robust defence of the use of automated facial recognition, both in public and it court. Chief Inspector Jason Herbert, Operations Manager for Bridgend says: “Facial recognition software helps detect risk more efficiently than standard CCTV. Officers on the ground can also identify early opportunities to prevent crime and reduce anti-social behaviour. We are very aware of concerns about privacy and we have built checks and balances into our methodology to reassure the public.” 

SWP says that it is searching for individuals on a “watch list” drawn up specifically for each event. At the 2017 Elvisfest, for example, there were 472 names on the list. All were either “suspected of crimes in South Wales, or had outstanding arrest warrants”, says Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis. 

The compiling and sign off for this list is made wherever possible by the most senior officer on the ground at the event (in police jargon, the Silver Commander). According to SWP’s own operational manual, however, there is no systematic process for review or inspection of that list by more senior officers, or anyone else. 

The NUJ will campaign for proper regulation, including safeguards for journalism, of facial recognition technology (as well as other second- generation biometrics such as voice and iris recognition). As soon as a new NUJ all- party Parliamentary Group has convened, this will be on its agenda. Members can raise the absence of regulation with candidates in the general election. 

In the meantime, however, an academic evaluation of SWP’s experience with facial recognition provides some pointers for journalists who wish to avoid their encounters being the subject of CCTV scrutiny and facial recognition. 

The researchers found that the system used by British police forces, NeoFace, manufactured by NEC, had some clear shortcomings. Low light forces the camera’s sensors to use higher ISO settings (increasing their sensitivity), and produces images too grainy for effective analysis. Hats with brims, scarves and sunglasses also reduced the system’s capacity for recognition. 

The efficaciousness of self-adhesive side burns, quiff wigs and rhinestone belts as disguise were not specifically considered by the academics. It is worth noting, however, that in 2019 SWP deployed two facial recognition vans for both days of the Porthcawl Elvisfest, and managed to identify not one person from their watch lists, nor did they make any arrests. Perhaps had the constables concentrated on the music instead of their surveillance screens they could have enjoyed themselves rather more and avoided the very trap warned of by the King himself – suspicious minds.