Coalition showdown over plan for gardaí to get facial recognition technology amid Green Party pressure on Harris

Greens want separate standalone legislation to go to the Oireachtas justice committee for scrutiny.

Gardaí want to use facial recognition technology to help them comb through CCTV more quickly

Hugh O'Connell

Justice Minister Simon Harris could be forced to scrap plans to give An Garda Síochána powers to use Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) as part of new body camera legislation as the Green Party escalates its opposition to the plan.

The Greens now believe that — in what would amount to a significant climbdown — Mr Harris will have to bring standalone legislation to introduce the legal right for gardaí to use FRT software in limited circumstances to probe murder, missing person and child sex abuse cases.

This would likely delay the use of the software which Mr Harris had hoped to incorporate in legislation to give gardaí the power to use body cameras before the summer recess.

However, in a sign of a potential Coalition stand off over the issue, sources in Mr Harris’s camp claimed last night there has been no change to plans amend the Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill to introduce FRT.

The issue was discussed by the three Coalition leaders last Monday when Green Party leader Eamon Ryan outlined his party’s position on FRT.

The Greens have long standing serious concerns and the Sunday Independent understands the party is now not willing to allow FRT to be introduced by way of amendment to the body cams legislation.

The party believes that such a major policy shift should instead be brought in through separate standalone legislation that would go to the Oireachtas justice committee for closer scrutiny.

Green Party ministers, along with Fianna Fáil’s Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, previously expressed opposition to the FRT plan when it was first mooted by Justice Minister Helen McEntee last year before she went on maternity leave.

“The Greens want to explore it more, they’re not against it but want safeguards,” said a senior Coalition source, who also said no decision had been taken on whether to pursue plans to amend the body-cam legislation or introduce a separate bill.

But another Coalition source claimed that to introduce FRT by way of amendment was “not going to be a runner”.

Mr Harris’s difficulty in progressing FRT through existing draft legislation is compounded by the chair of the Oireachtas justice committee, Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, saying this week that stand-alone legislation should be introduced to enable gardaí to use FRT.

“I’m very open to embracing new technologies and driving efficiencies in policing and crime prevention. However we have to tread carefully or it will be one step forward, two steps back, as has been seen in other jurisdictions already,” Mr Lawless told the Sunday Independent.

“A happy medium is to introduce it slowly, with checks and balances, and I think the justice committee could play a very useful role in analysing the whole area of FRT and A.I. [artificial intelligence] in policing, as a prelude to legislating for it.

“I think the alternative, of dropping into a separate bill at a late stage, does not sufficiently mitigate the risks and could open up problems down the line.”

The use of FRT is controversial, with one independent report in the UK finding 81pc of suspects flagged by the London Metropolitan Police’s FRT were innocent.

Proponents of its use argue that the technology is already being used by Europol and Interpol and that there are 18 EU member states that either have it or are proposing to start using it.

A spokesperson for Mr Harris said he was continuing to “engage with his Government colleagues on this issue” and that “he intends to bring amendments to the Bill on the use of Facial Recognition Technology, which will greatly assist An Garda Síochána as an evidence management tool”.

“The Minister said it has potentially transformational benefits in regard to certain specific areas of police work, in particular retrospectively examining CCTV which is already in the possession of An Garda Síochána,” the spokesperson said.

“The accurate and efficient identification of suspects and, equally, the elimination of individuals from inquiries are key pillars to ensure that An Garda Síochána meets its statutory obligations.

“The ability to automate searches on legally held images and footage would allow the organisation to operate more efficiently and effectively.

“The current process of long manual searches which potentially involves a team of gardaí manually going through CCTV footage for months to find a short few clips which may be relevant to an investigation, is well outdated and extremely inefficient.

“This tool would also assist a member of An Garda Síochána in finding the perpetrators of child sexual abuse and to finding and protecting the children who are subjected to this heinous crime.

“It would assist gardaí to identify missing persons and victims of kidnapping. It would also help to identify suspects in serious crimes, a process which is currently done manually.

“It would be particularly necessary where time is of the essence and for the preservation of life.”