Dublin riots: McEntee publishes draft law on facial recognition tech

14 Dec 2023

Helen McEntee. Image: Anthony20morris/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

The proposal will allow An Garda Síochána to use biometric data to identify people from CCTV footage.

Ireland is one step closer to allowing gardaí to use facial recognition technology after Government approved the publication of a draft bill today (14 December).

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, TD, said that facial recognition technology will “dramatically” save time, speed up investigations and free up resources for An Garda Síochána to perform the “high-visibility policing we all want to see”.

This comes less than a month after a group of people rioted in Dublin city centre following a stabbing incident in front of a nearby school that injured five people, including three children.

McEntee said gardaí have had to trawl through 12,000 hours of CCTV footage in the aftermath.

“There has been an explosion in the use of digital data in criminal investigations, and that without adequate data analysis tools, the length of criminal investigations will increase,” she said.

“Reducing the amount of time it takes gardaí to go through video footage will be of particular help where time is of the essence following a very serious crime being committed. It is in the interests of all parties, not least victims of crime, to have criminal investigations pursued as effectively and rapidly as possible.”

The proposal will allow law enforcement to use biometric data to identify people from CCTV footage. Earlier this month, Government passed the Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Act 2023 that allows gardaí to wear bodycams starting early next year.

“The General Scheme is intended to provide for the use of biometric identification, using facial images, by An Garda Síochána for an exhaustive list of the most serious of offences,” McEntee said of the proposed facial recognition tech amendment to the Act.

“It will only provide for a limited form of retrospective use of biometric identification which can assist An Garda Síochána when they are searching CCTV footage and data.”

The Government said it intends the technology to be deployed in exceptional circumstances, such as when a “serious offence” is suspected and when biometric identification is “necessary and proportionate” in a specific case.

“This draft Bill ensures there is a requirement for a statutory code of practice, including requirements to conduct data protection and human rights impact assessments,” McEntee added.

“Not only does it ensure that the requirements for a code of practice cover the use of this type of biometric identification, it also ensures that any code created under these provisions, will have to be approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas.”

Privacy concerns

Patrick Costello, TD, of the Green Party said that there is a need for limitations, safeguards and proper scrutiny when it comes to facial recognition technology.

“When [the tech] was last pushed by Fine Gael we looked for limitations, safeguards and proper scrutiny. The need for limits and safeguards hasn’t changed,” he said.

“We now need to ensure these safeguards are in the legislation itself. I look forward to examining this legislation at the Justice Committee.”

Advocacy groups such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) have expressed concerns around use of the technology for law enforcement and in public spaces.

Last year, the ICCL called for a ban on the use of facial recognition because of “the extreme risk” to an individual’s rights it poses, claiming its position aligns with a wider European movement to ban the use of the technology by law enforcement.

“A person’s face is permanently and irrevocably linked to a person’s identity. We would be particularly concerned about the move to authorise facial recognition technology for An Garda Síochána given their poor record on data protection,” the ICCL said.

“Additionally, neither An Garda Síochána nor the Department of Justice have shown any demonstration that using facial recognition technology is either necessary or proportionate – a legal requirement under human rights law.”

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Helen McEntee. Image: Anthony20morris/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic