Is Facial Recognition Legal in Your Country?


Facial recognition technology is becoming more common in all sorts of areas of life. The police use it to identify suspects. Airports and other transport hubs use it for security and payment. And companies often use it for security in malls or other public places.

You may have heard that some cities have moved to ban the use of the technology. But what are the laws about the use of facial recognition technology in various countries around the globe?

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in the US

Is facial recognition legal - US

Facial recognition technology is currently legal at a federal level in the US. Police forces use it, as do administrators at public venues such as at concerts or in airports.

However, some cities have banned the technology. San Francisco, for example, banned the use of facial recognition technology in 2019. Other cities, such as Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts, are considering their own bans on the technology. In San Francisco, the police are no longer allowed to use the technology. However, areas under federal jurisdiction such as the international airport are allowed to use it.

Use of the Clearview App

However, public sentiment is pushing back against facial recognition technology in other areas too. In January 2020, the New York Times reported on US law enforcement’s use of an app called Clearview. This app takes an image of a face and searches across the internet for matching images. It essential allows the easy tracking of anyone in a public place across the internet. This has lead to many calls to restrict the use of this technology.

The CEO of Clearview claims that his company’s use of data is protected by the First Amendment. However, websites from which data is being scraped, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, say that the app violates their terms of service. All these sites have demanded the app stop using their data in this way.

The fight about the legal status of this app and other facial recognition will be ongoing. For now, Clearview has said it plans to expand to other countries beyond the US. And a bill introduced in the US Senate in 2019 aims to curb the excessive use of facial recognition technology. If the bill were to pass, it would require law enforcement to get a court order before they could use facial recognition. A similar bill may be making its way through Congress soon as well.

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in Canada

In Canada, facial recognition technology is allowed and law enforcement use it there. Police in areas including Calgary and Toronto do use facial recognition for matching images from crime scenes to databases of mug shots. In some areas, such as Alberta, officials such as privacy commissioners are calling for oversight of the police’s use of the technology.

Private companies also use the technology, for example in shopping malls to monitor visitors.

There is legislation around data privacy in Canada, but none which concerns facial recognition specifically. In 2018, an Ontario court ruled that the police’s use of facial recognition to search through databases without a warrant was legal. For now, the technology remains in use despite a lack of regulation.

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in the UK

Is facial recognition legal - Canada

Facial recognition technology is common in the UK. But it is also a source of controversy. It is used not only by police, but also in public spaces, museums, and shopping malls. In 2019, a property developed in London’s King’s Cross estate admitted that it used facial recognition to track thousands of people moving around their homes.

There are no laws about the use of facial recognition yet. However, in 2019 the first legal challenges against the use of the technology began. Activists are taking the police to court over the use of automatic facial recognition, on the basis that it monitors everyone without their consent and before there is any reason to believe they are engaging in wrong-doing.

In Scotland, the Liberal Democrat party has introduced an amendment to a privacy bill which demands that the police delete photos of innocent people after three years. For now, this legislation is still under debate.

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in China

The government and private companies across China commonly use facial recognition software. It is even mandatory for new mobile phone users to submit to facial recognition scans to confirm their identities. Some companies also use the software for their employees to clock in and out of work each day.

The technology is used in public places, on public transport, at concert venues, and even in schools. Its use in schools has been particularly controversial, with angry parents complaining about invasiveness and the education ministry saying it would curb the use of the technology in schools.

Facial recognition technology is ubiquitous in China, and almost impossible to avoid. But there are people challenging this. For example, a law professor is currently suing a wildlife park which changed from a fingerprint-based entry system to a facial recognition-based one.

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in India

Is facial recognition legal - India
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The Indian government is developing its own facial recognition system, called the National Automated Facial Recognition System (NAFRS). The system is for use by law enforcement, allowing police to search for a suspect’s image from a database of images. When active, the system will be one of the largest in the world, able to process over 15 million images.

Despite concerns about the system raised by various civil liberties groups, the government has defended its use. The government argues that the system will modernize the police force. But activists say those in power could easily misuse the system and that it lacks a clear need to justify its existence.

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in Australia

The government of Australia is working on its own database of facial images as well. In 2019, the government announced it would upload driver’s license details to state databases. In future, the government wanted to link these state databases to a national database. However the Australian intelligence and security committee rejected the proposal and said it did not do enough to protect public privacy.

Now, the government must be completely redraft the legislation and resubmit it to the committee before it can become law.

The Legal Status of Facial Recognition in New Zealand

The law does allow the use of facial recognition in New Zealand. Police, casinos, and shops use it. A privacy activist did try to bring a case against its use by the police, but this was denied by the High Court.

Police in Auckland have affirmed that they intend to use facial recognition software in the future.

Facial Recognition Tech Will Become More Widespread

Around the world, governments and private companies are using facial recognition technology. This will likely increase in future too. It’s very hard to get away from this technology. But you can read our advice on how to avoid facial recognition online and in public.

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