Minister for Justice Simon Harris has told the Dáil that he is planning to bring a report to Government on the use of facial-recognition technology (FRT) by an Garda Síochána (AGS).
He said that FRT had “potentially transformational benefits” for some areas of police work, adding that the Garda Commissioner and staff had made “a compelling case” for the use of such technology in certain, limited circumstances.
The minister was introducing the Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill 2022, which will give AGS new powers to use body-worn cameras (bodycams).
It also extends the force's powers to use CCTV and automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR), while it also allows AGS to record from a range of sources – including bodycams, helicopters, drones, garda dogs, and mobile devices.
Under the proposals, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris would also have to prepare codes of practice on the use of the extended powers.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) had earlier said that it was “deeply concerned” about some elements of the bill, saying that FRT had not been included in the general scheme and, as a result, had not been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny.
Minister Harris said that he appreciated that there were different and genuinely held views on FRT and pledged to engage further with ministers and others in the coming weeks.
He added that any inclusion of facial recognition in the bill would be subject to “considerable safeguards and oversight”.
“This would include judicial oversight over the operation of this technology, a strict prior approval mechanism for its use, and garda personnel remaining responsible as decision-makers – meaning that there would not be any ‘machine decision-making’,” he continued.
The minister stated that any inclusion of FRT in the bill would require data-protection and human-rights assessments, as well as a code of practice on its use by AGS.
Minister for Justice Simon Harris had earlier said that the bill would "significantly strengthen" the capacity of AGS to tackle crime and protect national security.
He is hoping to enact the bill in time to allow Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to pilot the use of bodycams later this year, prior to their widespread roll-out.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), however, has said that it is "deeply concerned" about some elements of the bill, and has argued that the proposals are being rushed through the Oireachtas without sufficient scrutiny.
Codes of practice
Among the central elements of the bill are:
- Allowing for recording from bodycams, helicopters, aircraft, garda dogs, drones, mobile devices, and tablets,
- Extending the powers governing garda use of CCTV and ANPR technology,
- Providing powers for AGS to access third-party CCTV on a live-feed basis to support them in carrying out their function, subject to "strict guidelines and oversight",
- Placing a statutory obligation on the Garda Commissioner to prepare codes of practice, which will be submitted to the Minister for Justice for approval, on the operation of recording devices and CCTV.
The Department of Justice says that work is already underway on these codes, which will address standards to be applied, confidentiality, security, storage, access, and retention of data. It says these codes are intended to be in place when the bill is enacted.
The department says that it has engaged extensively with AGS and garda oversight bodies on the bill, as well as the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and the ICCL.
"Policing services across the world have gained significant benefits from the introduction of these technologies, and people will have seen their effective use in fighting and solving crime in other jurisdictions," said Minister Harris.
"I firmly believe that our gardaí must have the same tools as their colleagues in police services across Europe and around the world," he added.
Under the bill, bodycams must be visible on the clothing of the garda member, and have a light showing when they are recording.
The department says that the bill also contains a broad definition of 'recording device', to ensure that the legislation is future proofed.
CCTV schemes are currently dealt with under section 38 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, which will be repealed and replaced.
The new bill sets out how CCTV schemes should be managed in the future to ensure that they reflect changes in the law on foot of the introduction of the GDPR and the Law Enforcement Directive.
It will allow for the processing of live feeds of third-party CCTV, and the recording of certain calls to and from AGS. The bill will also provide the force with an updated legal basis for the installation and operation of CCTV on garda premises, according to the minister.
The ANPR component of the bill initially covers the National Roads Authority (motorway cameras), DAA (Dublin and Cork Airports) and Dublin Port.
The department says that AGS, in creating codes of practice on the use of its new powers, will have to consult several bodies, while there will also be impact assessments on human rights and data protection.
Once approved by the minister, each code will be contained in a Ministerial Order, thereby making it a public document.
The ICCL said that, while the bill was part of a wider programme of garda reform that it welcomed and supported, it would also significantly expand the force's surveillance powers.
"Some of the most intrusive measures proposed in this bill – the use of facial-recognition technology [FRT] and the use of ANPR to secretly track vehicles – were not in the general scheme of the bill, and therefore not subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas Justice Committee," stated Doireann Ansbro (ICCL Head of Legal and Policy).
She said that FRT posed risks to privacy and data protection, and had been shown to be inaccurate and discriminatory in other jurisdictions.
"We can't understand why the Government is rushing to introduce it, and we are still in the dark as to how it will be used and overseen in the Irish context," Ansbro said.
She called on the minister to ensure that there was robust debate on what she described as "these intrusive measures".