Case enhancement: Facial recognition for access and monitoring

Activity: Prompts to facilitate discussion activities. 

Author: Sarah Jayne Hitt, Ph.D. SFHEA (NMITE, Edinburgh Napier University).



There are several points in this case during which an educator can facilitate a class discussion about relevant issues. Below are prompts for discussion questions and activities that can be used. These correspond with the stopping points outlined in the case. Each prompt could take up as little or as much time as the educator wishes, depending on where they want the focus of the discussion to be. The discussion prompts for Dilemma Part three are already well developed in the case study, so this enhancement focuses on expanding the prompts in Parts one and two.


Dilemma Part one – Discussion prompts:

1. Legal Issues. Give students ten minutes to individually or in groups do some online research on GDPR and the Data Protection Act (2018). In either small groups or as a large class, discuss the following prompts. You can explain that even if a person is not an expert in the law, it is important to try to understand the legal context. Indeed, an engineer is likely to have to interpret law and policy in their work. These questions invite critical thinking and informed consideration, but they do not necessarily have ‚Äúright‚ÄĚ answers and are suggestions that can help get a conversation started.

a. Are legal policies clear about how images of living persons should be managed when they are collected by technology of this kind?

b. What aspects of these laws might an engineer designing or deploying this system need to be aware of?

c. Do you think these laws are relevant when almost everyone walking around has a digital camera connected to the internet?

d. How could engineers help address legal or policy gaps through design choices?

2. Sharing Data. Before entering into a verbal discussion, either pass out the suggested questions listed in the case study on a worksheet or project on a screen. Have students spend five or ten minutes jotting down their personal responses. To understand the complexity of the issue, students could even create a quick mind map to show how different entities (police, security company, university, research group, etc.) interact on this issue. After the students spend some time in this personal reflection, educators could ask them to pair/share‚ÄĒturn to the person next to them and share what they wrote down. After about five minutes of this, each pair could amalgamate with another pair, with the educator giving them the prompt to report back to the full class on where they agree or disagree about the issues and why.

3. GDPR Consent. Before discussing this case particularly, ask students to describe a situation in which they had to give GDPR consent. Did they understand what they were doing, what the implications of consent are, and why? How did they feel about the process? Do they think it’s an appropriate system? This could be done as a large group, small group, or through individual reflection. Then turn the attention to this case and describe the change of perspective required here. Now instead of being the person who is asked for consent, you are the person requiring consent. Engineers are not lawyers, but engineers often are responsible for delivering legally compliant systems. If you were the engineer in charge in this case, what steps might you take to ensure consent is handled appropriately? This question could be answered in small groups, and then each group could report back to the larger class and a discussion could follow the report-backs.

4. Institutional Complexity. The questions listed in the case study relate to the fact that the building in which the facial recognition system will be used accommodates many different stakeholders. To help students with these questions, educators could divide the class into small groups, with each group representing one of the institutions or stakeholder groups (college, hospital, MTU, students, patients, public, etc.). Have each group investigate whether regulations related to captured images are different for their stakeholders, and debate if they should be different. What considerations will the engineer in the case have to account for related to that group? The findings can then be discussed as a large class.


Dilemma Part two – Discussion prompts:

The following questions relate to macroethical concerns, which means that the focus is on wider ethical contexts such as fairness, equality, responsibility, and implications.

1. Benefits and Burdens. To prepare to discuss the questions listed in the case study, students could make a chart of potential harms and potential benefits of the facial recognition system. They could do this individually, in pairs or small groups, or as a large class. Educators should encourage them to think deeply and broadly on this topic, and not just focus on the immediate, short-term implications. Once this chart is made, the questions listed in the case study could be discussed as a group, and students asked to weigh up these burdens and benefits. How did they make the choices as to when a burden should outweigh a benefit or vice versa?

2. Equality and Utility. To address the questions listed in the case study, students could do some preliminary individual or small group research on the accuracy of facial recognition systems for various population groups. The questions could then be discussed in pairs, small groups, or as a large class.

3. Engineer Responsibility. Engineers are experts that have much more specific technical knowledge and understanding than the general public. Indeed, the vast majority of people have no idea how a facial recognition system works and what the legal requirements are related to it, even if they are asked to give their consent. Does an engineer therefore have more of a responsibility to make people aware and reassure them? Or is an engineer just fulfilling their duty by doing what their boss says and making the system work? What could be problematic about taking either of those approaches?


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Dr Nicola Whitehead (University of Wales Trinity Saint David); Professor Sarah Hitt (NMITE); Emma Crichton (Engineers Without Borders UK); Dr Sarah Junaid (Aston University); Professor Mike Sutcliffe (TEDI-London), Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Development and use of a facial recognition system. 

Engineering disciplines: Data, Electronics, Computer science, AI.

Ethical issues: Diversity, Bias, Privacy, Transparency.

Professional situations: Rigour, Informed consent, Misuse of data, Conflicts with leadership / management.

Educational level: Advanced. 

Educational aim: To encourage ethical motivation. Ethical motivation occurs when a person is moved by a moral judgement, or when a moral judgement is a spur to a course of action. 


Learning and teaching notes: 

This case involves an engineer hired to manage the development and installation of a facial recognition project at a building used by university students, businesses and the public. It incorporates a variety of components including law and policy, stakeholder and risk analysis, and both macro- and micro-ethical elements. This example is UK-based: however, the instructor can adapt the content to better fit the laws and regulations surrounding facial recognition technology in other countries, if this would be beneficial.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

This case is presented in three parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two (focusing on the wider ethical context of the case) and Part three (focusing on the potential actions the engineer could take)develop and complicate the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case study allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to: 


Learning and teaching resources:



Metropolitan Technical University (MTU), based in the UK, has an urban campus and many of its buildings are located in the city centre. A new student housing development in this area will be shared by MTU, a local college, and medical residents doing short rotations at the local hospital. The building has a public café on the ground floor and a couple of classrooms used by the university. 

The housing development sits alongside a common route for parades and protests. In the wake of demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, students have raised concerns to the property manager about safety. Despite an existing system of CCTV cameras and swipe cards, the university decides to install an enhanced security system, built around facial recognition technology that would enable access to the building and cross-reference with crime databases. To comply with GDPR, building residents will be required to give explicit consent before the system is implemented. Visitors without a student ID (such as café customers) will be buzzed in, but their image will be captured and cross-referenced before entry. A side benefit of the system is that MTU’s department of Artificial Intelligence Research will help with the installation and maintenance, as well as studying how it works, in order to make improvements. 


Dilemma ‚Äď Part one:

You are an engineer who has been hired by MTU to take charge of the facial recognition system installation project, including setting policies and getting the system operational. With your background in AI engineering, you are expected to act as a technical advisor to MTU and liaise with the Facilities, Security and Computing departments to ensure a smooth deployment. This is the first time you have worked on a project that involves image capture. So as part of your preparation for the project, you need to do some preliminary research as to what best practices, guidance, and regulations apply.


Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: What are the legal issues relating to image capture? Images allow for the identification of living persons and are therefore considered as personal data under GDPR and the Data Protection Act (2018).

2. Discussion: Sharing data is a legally and ethically complex field. Is it appropriate to share images captured with the police? If not the police, then whose crime database will you use? Is it acceptable to share the data with the Artificial Intelligence Research group? Why, or why not?

3. Discussion: Under GDPR, individuals must normally consent to their personal data being processed. How should consent be handled in this case?

4. Discussion: Does the fact that the building will accommodate students from three different institutions (MTU, the local college, and the hospital) complicate these issues? Are regulations related to students’ captured images different than those related to public image capture?

5. Activity: Undertake a technical activity that relates to how facial recognition systems are engineered.


Dilemma ‚Äď Part two:

The project has kicked off, and one of its deliverables is to establish the policies and safeguards that will govern the system. You convened a meeting of project stakeholders to determine what rules need to be built into the system’s software and presented a list of questions to help you make technical decisions. The questions you asked were:

What you had thought would be a quick meeting to agree basic principles turned out to be very lengthy and complex. You were surprised at the variety of perspectives and how heated the discussions became. The discussions raised some questions in your own mind as to the risks of the facial recognition system.


Optional STOP for questions and activities:

The following activities focus on macro-ethics. This seeks to understand the wider ethical contexts of projects like the facial recognition system.

1. Activity: Stakeholder mapping – Who are all the stakeholders and what might their positions and perspectives be? Is there a difference between the priorities of the different stakeholders?

2. Activity: There are many different values competing for priority here. Identify these values, discuss and debate how they should be weighed in the context of the project.

3. Activity: Risks can be understood as objective and / or subjective. Research the difference between these two types of risk, and identify which type(s) of risks exist related to the project.

4. Discussion: Which groups or individuals are potentially harmed by the technology and which potentially benefit? How should we go about setting priorities when there are competing harms and benefits?

5. Discussion: Does the technology used treat everyone from your stakeholders’ list equally? Should the needs of society as a whole outweigh the needs of the individual?

6. Activity: Make and defend an argument as to the appropriateness of installing and using the system.

7. Discussion: What responsibilities do engineers have in developing these technologies?


Dilemma ‚Äď Part three:

A few days later, you were forwarded a screenshot of a social media post that heavily criticised the proposed facial recognition system. It was unclear where the post had originated, but it had clearly been shared and promoted among both students and the public raising concerns about privacy and transparency. Your boss believes this outcry endangers the project and has requested that you make a public statement on behalf of MTU, reaffirming its commitment to installing the system.

You share the concerns, but have been employed to complete the project. You understand that suggesting it should be abandoned, would most likely risk your job. What will you tell your boss? How will you prepare your public statement?


Optional STOP for questions and activities:

Micro-ethics concerns individuals and their responses to specific situations. The following steps are intended to help students develop their ability to practise moral analysis by considering the problem in a structured way and work towards possible solutions that they can analyse critically.

 1. Discussion: What are the problems here? 

2. Discussion: What are the possible courses of action you can take as an employee?

 Students can be prompted to consider what different approaches they might adopt, such as the following, but can also develop their own possible responses. 

3. Discussion: Which is the best approach and why? РInterrogate the pros and cons of each possible course of action including the ethical, practical, cost, local relationship and the reputational damage implications. Students should decide on their own preferred course of action and explain why the balance of pros and cons is preferable to other options. The students may wish to consider this from other perspectives, such as: 

4. Activity: Public Communication – Students can practise writing a press release, giving an interview, or making a public statement about the case and the decision that they make.

5. Activity: Reflection – Students can reflect on how this case study has enabled them to see the situation from different angles. Has it motivated them to understand the ethical concerns and to come to an acceptable conclusion.



An enhancement for this case study can be found here.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Let us know what you think of our website