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UK Using Facial Recognition Technology on Prison Visitors ... is the U.S. Next?

by Chad Marks

After more than 23,000 packages containing drugs and cell phones were seized in UK prisons in 2018 – compared to just 4,000 the year before – officials with Her Majesty’s Prison Service decided to use new facial recognition and document-scanning technology on visitors at three prisons – HMP Hull, HMP Humber and HMP Lindholme – in an attempt to thwart contraband smuggling. 

Ministry of Justice Secretary David Gauke called the new technologies “vital” to the prison system’s “fight against the gangs that seek to cause chaos in prisons.” Some UK facilities were already using fingerprint and document identity checks, but they were slow because they were paper-based, so they couldn’t timely track people making visits to multiple prisons on the same day or during the same week.

For six weeks between December 2018 and January 2019, prison staff used a British-manufactured biometric technology called Freewatch at HMP Humber, a men’s prison, scanning some 770 visitors’ faces. At HMP Lindholme, another men’s prison, iris-scanning technology created by Tascent, an American firm, was used. IDScan, another British product that detects false documents, was employed at HMP Hull, which is a pre-trial detention facility for men. 

The Ministry of Justice alleged that some visitors were using false documents and IDs to enter prisons to deliver drugs, especially a potent synthetic known as “spice.” The new technologies were used to detect false or falsely used identification documents. When a discrepancy was detected an alert was sent to prison officials, who were then able to access similar information at all three prisons at once. 

After the trial period was announced, HMP Humber officials immediately noticed there were numerous no-shows among visitation appointments from regular visitors. Many other visitors turned back after arriving and learning that the new ID verification software was in place. Prison officials also said the facial recognition biometrics proved to be a deterrent to smugglers, touting the trial period a success in cracking down on drugs and cell phones entering the prison system. 

Others were not so happy with the new technology being used on prison visitors. Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer for Big Brother Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group, rebuked the UK government for “taking an experimental approach to human rights.” He recalled that the announcement of the trial period at the prisons came as a “total shock to everyone.”

“Government seeking public approval for facial recognition cameras in low-rights environments such as prisons is a staggering move since we know it’s also trying to introduce them as a general public surveillance tool,” Ferris added.

Big Brother Watch has brought a case against the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights. 

“We are taking the challenge to the highest level to protect the rights of millions of citizens to be free from unwarranted state intrusion,” said the organization’s director, Silkie Carlo. “Some of the worst abuses of state powers in recent years have been enabled by secret, suspicionless surveillance and it must come to an end.”

Prison Campaigners, another advocacy group, worried that if families were deterred from visiting their incarcerated loved ones, the use of the technology would be “counterproductive.” A similar concern was voiced by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

New security measures such as the facial recognition and ID document scanning technologies being tested at the three prisons are being funded from a £7 million ($8.7 million USD) earmark that is part of a £16 million ($19.9 million USD) investment by the UK government to improve conditions for both prison staff and prisoners. Corrections officials are also considering phone-blocking technology to render contraband cell phones useless.

Calling the trial period at the three prisons a success, officials are now studying how to implement the technologies more widely in facilities across England and Wales. It is only a matter of time before facial recognition programs and other ways to identify and track visitors are implemented in U.S. prisons, too. 



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