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16th Feb 2024

Garda facial recognition technology at risk of being ‘ineffective and inherently flawed’, warns expert

Stephen Porzio


“If Ireland goes ahead with this technology, it’s just a matter of time before we become a cautionary tale in an international headline.”

An Oireachtas committee has heard that the Gardaí’s proposed use of facial recognition technology (FRT) runs the risk of being “ineffective” and “inherently flawed”.

Earlier this week, the justice committee met to scrutinise the draft Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) (Amendment) bill.

This serves to add FRT use to agreed legislation regarding the rollout of Garda body cameras across Ireland.

During the committee meeting, Dr Abeba Birhane – an assistant professor specialising in artificial intelligence at Trinity College’s school of computer science – said that, in seeking policing FRT legislation a second time, Ireland is running the risk of “inadvertently imposing a technology that is ineffective, inherently flawed, opaque and proven to be discriminatory”.

frtDr Abeba Birhane speaking about FRT

“Although it’s often presented as a cost-end resource effective aid to policing, FRT has proven to be ineffective and intrusive,” she also said.

Dr Birhane cited a recent survey of police use of FRT across Wales between 2016 and 2023, which reportedly found that out of over 500,000 faces scanned, over 3,000 people were “wrongfully identified” and only three arrests were ultimately made.

“In a recent study that was carried out by myself and my colleagues where we evaluated the latest state-of-the-art computer vision models on a classification task, we found that black people are still labelled at a much higher rate and misclassified as criminal and suspicious persons,” she also told the committee.

“So far in the US alone, we know of six people that have been wrongfully convicted and arrested due to errors in FRT. Five of them are black men and one of them is a black woman.

“Again, the discrimination tends to be against minoritised identities.”

Concluding her opening statement, Dr Birhane said: “If Ireland goes ahead with this technology, it’s just a matter of time before we become a headline, a cautionary tale in an international headline.

Also speaking at the Oireachtas Committee was Garda commissioner Drew Harris, who said that Gardaí, in order to effective in fulfilling their role, “must have access to modern digital image analysis and recognition tools”.


Garda Commissioner Drew Harris speaking about FRT

“There’s obviously a very understandable public concern and indeed perhaps some confusion about AI technology and indeed what An Garda Síochána intend on how we use it as an investigative tool,” he added.

“I wish to clarify that in Garda Síochána, this means electronic tools, that that’s only in support of decisions taken by Gardaí.

“There’s no question of autonomous machine decision making ever. All decisions that can impact on a person are only taken by identifiable and accountable personnel.”

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