Is Simon Harris, Drew Harris and Micheál Martin attempting to fast-track use of facial recognition technology by Gardai in preparation for suppression of future protests against government?

The acting Minister for Justice, Simon Harris has announced his intention to amend the Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill currently going through the Dáil to allow for the fast-tracking of controversial FRT (facial recognition technology)to be made available for use by the Gardai.

The Sunday Independent reported that the Garda commissioner, Drew Harris wrote to Minister Harris warning that new laws giving gardaí body cameras must include the ability to use FRT.

The Tanaiste, Micheál Martin told reporters at the Fianna Fáil 1916 commemeration in Dublin’s Arbour Hill on Sunday that he supports the acting Justice Minister’s efforts to introduce the use of FRT by the Gardai.

“Once the adequate safeguards are put in place, I do believe it’s moving in the right direction”, he said.

The chair of the Dáil justice committee, Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless wants the committee to be given the chance to assess the issue before the controversial amendment is introduced.

He told The Irish Times that stand-alone legislation should be introduced if the Minister intends to proceed with his plan to enable the use of FRT by the Gardai.

A spokesperson for the Green party said that it’s “far too complex to be dealt with by way of an amendment to an existing bill. This is particularly true given that significant concerns have been raised about its use in other countries”.

Dr Ciara Bracken-Roche (Maynooth University school of law and criminology), Dr Elizabeth Farries (UCD Centre for Digital Policy) and Olga Cronin (Irish Council for Civil Liberties) have written an extended opinion piece published in today’s Irish Times.

They write: “The use of body-worn cameras with FRT would turn gardaí into roaming surveillance units. If allowed, there will be pervasive monitoring of the public without their knowledge or consent. Anyone passing a garda – or a garda dog or horse equipped with a body-worn camera – could be potentially scanned, identified and catalogued in a FRT database. People won’t even have to be suspected of a crime or even have communicated with a garda for the surveillance to take place. This is dystopian.”

They go on to say that FRT is not the Silver Bullet suggested by those pushing for it.

Research in other countries shows that there’s problems with its accuracy resulting in wrongful arrests. In addition, there has been a bias detected in its deployment resulting in people of colour and marginalised groups more likely to be arrested.

They explain the problems associated with the use of poor quality images harvested from sources such as social media without people’s knowledge, which is an obvious violation of data protection.

Of huge concern is the deployment of FRT  to track down people at peaceful assemblies and protest meetings.

This unintended consequence running counter to the intended use of the technology poses a huge threat to the democratic right to peaceful protest.

“We could see instances of function creep occur where FRT starts to be used in cases and contexts beyond what was originally stated,” they write.

Bracken-Roche, Farries and Cronin explain this point further: “Function creep has been seen in other European countries, such as Austria, where FRT was initially to be used for serious crimes but was later reportedly used by police to identify protesters. The use of technology for a different purpose could also occur if authorities do not receive the correct training. This is a concern that cannot be dismissed in this jurisdiction.”

They point out that the Gardai have a proven track record in breaching data protection law and have been criticised by the Data Protection Commission for not applying data protection law with regard to existing surveillance technologies.

They raise concerns about the potential use of FRT to conduct mass-surveillance of the population resulting in social control.

They conclude by acknowledging the concerns that have been raised by some politicians and say these “are too great to allow this to be pushed through.”