Can I hide my face from facial recognition cameras?

Submitted by R Totale on June 22, 2020

Widespread police deployment of facial recognition cameras has been in the offing for a while now. Last year there were trials of automated facial recognition (AFR) technology by a number of forces around the country, most notably South Wales Police, whose use of AFR in town centres, as well as football matches and protests, was challenged in the High Court. In that case, the High Court ruled in favour of South Wales Police, stating that, while the use of AFR interfered with the privacy rights of individuals, such inteference was legal, and fully “consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and the data protection legislation.” An appeal on this ruling is set to be heard some time before January 2021.

The Met have chosen to interpret this judgement as giving them the green light for widespread operational deployment of live facial recognition cameras. The fact that the High Court judgement probably doesn’t provide sufficient legal basis for this move1 appears to be of little concern to the Met, who – undoubtedly emboldened by the rhetoric of both central government and the leading London mayoral candidates – appear to have started unilaterally asserting new powers, rather than requesting them from government.

Failing a win in the courts, however, it seems likely that facial recognition cameras will be playing a much more extensive role in frontline policing. For this reason, it’s important for people to know – and make use of – the limited protections afforded them by the law.

Can I hide my face from facial recognition cameras?

As a general rule, unless you’ve been arrested, you are not legally obliged to comply with police attempts to photograph or film you, and you are well within your rights to hide or obscure your face and/or walk away from (marked or unmarked) facial recognition cameras.

In practice, however, the police often view non-compliance with street filming/overt surveillance operations as constituting suspicious behaviour, giving them grounds to ask you questions (which you don’t have to answer) and/or stop and search you (which, legally, you do have to comply with). It’s important to remember that if you are stop and searched, you are not obliged to give the police your name or other personal details2 and that the cops should only be going into your wallet or ID holder if it could reasonably be the location of whatever it is they say they are looking for (e.g. not if they are looking for spray paint). For more infomation on your rights when stop and searched have a look at this guide.

What if they ask me to remove a face covering?

If the police are using facial recognition cameras and an officer stops you to request that you remove a scarf or mask that is obscuring your face, you are not obliged to comply unless a Section 60AA order is in place. If s60AA is in force, however, failure to comply with a request to remove a face covering or other disguising items is a criminal offence.

But what about that guy who was fined for hiding his face?

Back in May last year, various newspapers were reporting that the police had fined a man for hiding his face from facial recognition cameras in Romford town centre. As I detailed at the time, this simply wasn’t the case: the man was fined for swearing at the cops, not for covering his face. But the incident still served a useful function for the police, sending a clear message to the public that you challenge police surveillance at your own risk.

The question we face is how to collectivise this risk; how can we effect mass disruption of these new mechanisms of control in ways that are both sustainable and effective? Developing a culture of consistently masking up on demos is a good start but we need to start thinking beyond this, about how we can resist the forms of police surveillance that are increasingly permeating our everyday lives.

Carl Spender

  • 1As the Biometrics Commissioner Prof Paul Wiles points out: “This is a step-change in the use of LFR by the UK police, given that the technology will be deployed fully operationally rather than on a trial basis. Although the court found South Wales’ use of LFR to be consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and data protection legislation, that judgment was specific to the particular circumstances in which South Wales police used their LFR system.”
  • 2There are various situations in which you are obliged to provide your name and address (if the police suspect you of anti-social behaviour, for example) but none of these are stop and search powers.