Academics warn of facial recognition technology’s ‘chilling effects’ and potential social harm

Concerns about the potential use of facial recognition technology (FRT) by An Garda Síochána have been raised by a number of specialist academics who warned of its “chilling effects” and potential social harms.

An Oireachtas committee hearing expert insights on the technology was also told of likely legal challenges should its use be adopted in the context of current draft legislation, and of the importance of judicial, rather than police, oversight.

“If Ireland goes ahead with this technology it’s just a matter of time before we become a headline,” said Dr Abeba Birhane of the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College Dublin, who warned of its tendency to err along minority group lines, a common criticism of FRT systems.

Dr Daragh Murray, senior lecturer at the School of Law in Queen Mary University of London, sought to highlight the potential “chilling effects”.

“Facial recognition represents a step-change in police surveillance capability,” he said, telling the committee he advocated for a moratorium on its use.

“Both live and retrospective facial recognition makes possible the ability to monitor, track and profile large amounts of the population with significant private life implications.”

The extent of proposed FRT use by An Garda Síochána was played down by its chief information officer Andrew O’Sullivan who told the committee it would be retrospective, and with human involvement, rather than autonomous, machine-led results in real time.

“We have absolutely no intention of doing real time facial recognition; we also have no time at all for autonomous machine decision making,” he said. “Every decision [during investigations] will be made by a person.”