Met police computers access ‘dangerous’ facial recognition search engine

Officers accessed the controversial site more than 2,000 times in one 90 day period. Image: Ian Dagnall / Alamy

Metropolitan Police officers walking a beat on patrol in Fulham, London
Officers and staff from the Metropolitan Police Force have been banned from accessing Pimeyes after a probe by Liberty Investigates and i news

Reports Mark Wilding for Liberty Investigates, and Cahal Milmo for the i. Edited by Harriet Clugston, Liberty Investigates.


Scotland Yard has banned officers from using a controversial facial recognition search engine described as “invasive and dangerous” by MPs after it was accessed thousands of times from Metropolitan Police computers, Liberty Investigates and i news can reveal.

Pimeyes – a website that allows users to upload photos and identify where images of an individual appear elsewhere on the internet – was visited from Met Police computers 2,337 times in just one three month period, according to a freedom of information request submitted by Liberty Investigates. Unlike Met-approved facial recognition tools, Pimeyes could be accessed by any officer or staff member without official records of searches or safeguards around whose photos are being searched.

The Met Police downplayed the revelation when contacted by reporters, stating it had clear policies and procedures governing the use of facial recognition and that officers visiting the site may not have been actually using the tool – but has since blocked access.

Police chiefs meanwhile have advised forces across the UK to neither confirm or deny if their officers use Pimeyes, citing concerns about “negative press”.

Researchers and campaigners have raised concerns the website can be used for stalking and surveillance, while MPs warn some users have used it to track and harass women. Pimeyes claims to be designed to help people protect their privacy and manage their own online presence, though its website boasts press coverage describing it as a “potentially dangerous superpower from the world of science fiction”.

The police should only ever use tools that have been properly vetted, tested, and approved for use. PimEyes is none of those.

David Davis, Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister

Conservative and Labour MPs have said officers’ use of the “unregulated” system is cause for concern, with Labour’s Mick Whitley describing it as “dangerous” and “deeply disturbing”.

Former Cabinet minister David Davis MP said: “The police should only ever use tools that have been properly vetted, tested, and approved for use. PimEyes is none of those. The Met is right to restrict access to this search engine. It should never have been allowed in the first place. All other forces should swiftly follow suit.”

Last year 28 MPs and peers wrote to the UK’s Information Commissioner calling for action to be taken against Pimeyes, describing the service as “invasive and dangerous”, while noting “examples of the technology being used to track and harass women”.

Pimeyes claims to use a “reverse image search mechanism” enhanced by “face recognition technology”, allowing users to upload photos of faces to find out where images of the same individual appear elsewhere online. The service excludes results from social media and video platforms — but identifies where photos of an individual appear in news articles, company websites, blog posts, or any other site on the open internet.

Existing facial recognition tools used by the Met Police limit searches to watchlists of wanted people and their use is subject to approval by senior officers. Pimeyes is different — offering a way to search for matches among the faces of billions of people whose photos appear online.

The Met Police, along with almost every other police force in the UK, declined to respond to further freedom of information requests seeking information about the number of times Pimeyes had been used to conduct facial recognition searches, citing concerns that revealing police tactics may hinder the prevention of crime.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council later disclosed correspondence which shows the organisation advised all police forces that “Pimeyes has received negative press before” and that they should refuse to confirm or deny whether the service had been accessed via their networks, “regardless as to whether any forces hold/do not hold information”.

In a statement the Met said it had “strengthened existing safeguards” by blocking the website. Policies and procedures governing the use of facial recognition by its officers are not published publicly and it is unclear whether third party platforms are covered.

Screenshot of National Police Chiefs' Council advise to all UK police forces that they should neither confirm or deny if they held information on police use of the Pimeyes facial recognition search tool. Source: FOI request by Liberty Investigates

Campaign group Big Brother Watch had previously complained to the commissioner that Pimeyes enables stalking and surveillance “on a scale previously unimaginable”, alleging the company was “unlawfully processing the biometric data of millions of UK citizens”.

Jake Hurfurt, head of research and investigations at Big Brother Watch, said: “It is disturbing to think that police officers repeatedly used a private facial recognition search engine that scans billions of our photos without our knowledge or permission.

“It is entirely inappropriate for police officers to use PimEyes, which has been linked to revenge porn and stalking. We welcome the block on officers using PimEyes on the Met Police network, but the force must come clean about how often its officers used it, what for, and who was affected.

“Facial recognition technology is dangerously unregulated in Britain and the Information Commissioner should step in to safeguard the British public from these Orwellian facial recognition tools.”

Pimeyes chief executive Giorgi Gobronidze said: “We are committed to openness and cooperation with all relevant data protection authorities. We have demonstrated this commitment through our proactive engagement with the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), to whom we have provided all requested information.

“Our engine is designed solely to locate the sources that publish photographs. PimEyes does not possess, nor does it utilise, any technology to identify living individuals.” He added: “I am not aware of any official use by UK police … The use of our engine by any party in the UK is at their discretion.

A spokeswoman for the ICO said it concluded its enquiries into Pimeyes in 2023, adding: “Should any further information come to light or if complaints are reported to us, we will review this again.”

The office of policing minister Chris Philp, who has championed the use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement, referred enquiries about police use of Pimeyes to the Home Office, which declined to comment.


A version of this report was published with i news