The UK Court of Appeal has ruled the use of automatic facial recognition technology by the South Wales Police Force was unlawful in a landmark case brought forward by human rights activists.

In 2017 and 2018, South Wales Police captured the facial images of Welshman Ed Bridges during a trial deployment of its new facial recognition capabilities.

The system was hooked into ‘watchlist’ databases containing facial images of people wanted by police, criminal suspects, missing persons, people of interest to the South Wales Police, among others.

While the system was designed such that faces which did not match with those on a watchlist were immediately deleted, Bridges took the police to court arguing that the arbitrary capture of his biometric information violated his right to privacy under European law.

Last year, the UK High Court found that the police use of facial recognition was not unlawful, even if it did interfere with the privacy of some 500,000 people scanned during its two years of operation.

But the Court of Appeal overturned that ruling on Tuesday, finding the surveillance system breached privacy, data protection, and equality laws.

Bridges said he was “delighted” by the court’s decision.

“This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool,” he said.

“For three years now, South Wales Police has been using it against hundreds of thousands of us, without our consent and often without our knowledge.

“We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance.”

Europe’s Convention on Human Rights gives everyone the “right to respect for private and family life” with which authorities can only interfere “in accordance with the law”.

In this case, the court found that South Wales Police did not operate their facial recognition system within the law, saying the placement of cameras and inclusion of persons on the watchlist occurred with “impermissibly wide areas of discretion” on behalf of South Wales Police officers.

The court particularly took issue with facial recognition system’s governing framework that allowed South Wales Police to include people on the watchlist “where intelligence is required”.

It also found that the police “never sought to satisfy themselves” that the facial recognition technology – provided by NEC – did not contain “unacceptable bias” on race or sex.

Bridges was represented by lawyers from UK human rights organisation Liberty; and legal costs were funded through crowdsourcing platform CrowdJustice.

Liberty lawyer, Megan Goulding, called for facial recognition to be banned.

“This judgment is a major victory in the fight against discriminatory and oppressive facial recognition,” she said.

“The court has agreed that this dystopian surveillance tool violates our rights and threatens our liberties.

“Facial recognition discriminates against people of colour, and it is absolutely right that the court found that South Wales Police had failed in their duty to investigate and avoid discrimination.”