THE use of controversial facial recognition technology by South Wales Police has been ruled as lawful after an activist brought a legal challenge.

The force had been subject to a High Court challenge by Ed Bridges, 36, from Cardiff, after claiming his face was scanned while doing Christmas shopping in 2017 and at a peaceful anti-arms protest in 2018.

His lawyers argued use of automatic facial recognition (AFR) caused him “distress” and violated his privacy and data protection rights.

But the case was dismissed on Wednesday by two leading judges.

South Wales Police has been trialling the technology, called AFR Locate, since 2017, with a view to it being rolled out nationally.

It has used the technology, intended to track down wanted or missing people, 50 times to date.

The force operates in Penarth, and residents may have had their faces scanned while shopping or attending events in Cardiff.

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, sitting with Mr Justice Swift, said: “We are satisfied both that the current legal regime is adequate to ensure appropriate and non-arbitrary use of AFR Locate, and that South Wales Police’s use to date of AFR Locate has been consistent with the requirements of the Human Rights Act and the data protection legislation.

Cardiff South and Penarth AM Vaughan Gething called for “clarity” on the use of the technology.

“I don’t take the view that facial recognition should not be used in playing a part to keep the public safe,” he said.

“The police need to do what they can but they need to act within the law and have rules around how they use information that is gathered including facial recognition. It’s part of the challenge of ever-changing technology.”

This was the first time the use of the technology had been tested in court.

The system uses cameras to scan the structure of faces in crowds.

It then creates a digital image and compares the result against a “watch list”.

If a match is found, officers in the area are alerted.

South Wales Police piloted its technology during the week of the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff, making it the first UK force to use it at a sporting event.

Facial recognition has also been used on a number of privately-owned sites, including in shopping centres, museums and conference centres.

But campaigners say it breaches citizens’ human rights.

Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch says “the notion of live facial recognition turning citizens into walking ID cards is chilling”.

Some also claim the technology will deter people from expressing views in public or going to peaceful protests.

It is also claimed that facial recognition can be unreliable, and least accurate when it attempts to identify black people and women.

Chief Constable Matt Jukes said: “This is innovative work that put South Wales Police at the front of the development of this technology and the debate that surrounds it. I recognise that the use of AI (artificial intelligence) and face-matching technologies around the world is of great interest and at times, concern. So, I’m pleased that the court has recognised the responsibility that South Wales Police has shown in our programme.

“With the benefit of this judgment, we will continue to explore how to ensure the ongoing fairness and transparency of our approach.”

South Wales police and crime commissioner Alun Michael also welcomed the ruling, saying: "My priority has been to ensure that South Wales Police make best use of technology to keep the public safe while also working within the law and protecting civil liberties - and I believe that has been achieved as a result of constant discussion and careful scrutiny.”