Home News Big Brother Watch investigation unearths “facial recognition epidemic” in UK

Big Brother Watch investigation unearths “facial recognition epidemic” in UK

by Brian Sims

An investigation by Big Brother Watch has uncovered a facial recognition “epidemic” across privately owned sites in the UK. The civil liberties campaign group has found major property developers, Shopping Centres, museums, conference centres and casinos using the technology in the UK.

The investigation has uncovered the use of live facial recognition in Sheffield’s Meadowhall, one of the biggest Shopping Centres in the North of England, in secret police trials that took place last year. The trial could have scanned the faces of over two million visitors.

The Shopping Centre is owned by British Land, which owns large areas within London including parts of Paddington, Broadgate, Canada Water and Ealing Broadway. Each site’s privacy policy says that facial recognition may be in use, although British Land insists only Meadowhall has used the surveillance so far.

Last week, The Financial Times revealed that the privately-owned King’s Cross estate in London was using facial recognition, while Canary Wharf is considering following suit. This expose prompted widespread concerns with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, writing to the estate’s management to express his concerns.

Last year, the Trafford Centre in Manchester was pressured to stop using live facial recognition surveillance following an intervention by Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter. It was estimated that up to 15 million people were scanned during the operation.

“Dark irony” of China exhibition visitors scanned

Silkie Carlo

Silkie Carlo

Big Brother Watch’s investigation has revealed that Liverpool’s World Museum scanned visitors with facial recognition surveillance during its exhibition ‘China’s First Emperor and The Terracotta Warriors’ in 2018. Silkie Carl, director of Big Brother Watch, described it as “dark irony” noting: “This authoritarian surveillance tool is rarely seen outside of China” and warning: “Many of those scanned will have been school children.”

The World Museum is part of the National Museums Liverpool Group, which also includes the International Slavery Museum, the Museum of Liverpool and a collection of other museums and art galleries. The Group stated that it’s “currently testing feasibility of using similar technology in the future”.

Big Brother Watch’s investigation also found that the Millennium Point Conference Centre in Birmingham uses facial recognition surveillance “at the request of law enforcement”, according to its privacy policy. In recent years, the area surrounding the Conference Centre has been used for demonstrations by trade unionists, football fans and anti-racism campaigners. The Conference Centre refused to give further information about its past or present uses of facial recognition surveillance. Millennium Point is soon to host a ‘hackathon’.

A number of casinos and betting shops also have policies that refer to their use of facial recognition technology including Ladbrokes and the Coraland Hippodrome Casino London.

Silkie Carlo observed: “There’s an epidemic of facial recognition in the UK. The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing. Facial recognition is the perfect tool of oppression and the widespread use we’ve found indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency.”

Carlo continued: “We now know that many millions of innocent people will have had their faces scanned with this surveillance without knowing about it, whether by the police or by private companies. The idea of a British museum secretly scanning the faces of children visiting an exhibition on the first emperor of China is chilling. There’s a dark irony that this authoritarian surveillance tool is rarely seen outside of China.”

In conclusion, Carlo outlined: “Facial recognition surveillance risks making privacy in Britain extinct. Parliament must follow in the footsteps of legislators in the United States and urgently ban this authoritarian surveillance from public spaces.”

Live facial recognition technology in King’s Cross

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has made a statement on the use of live facial recognition technology in London’s King’s Cross.

“Scanning people’s faces as they lawfully go about their daily lives, in order to identify them, is a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all. That’s especially the case if it’s done without people’s knowledge or understanding. I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies, but also increasingly by the private sector. My office and the judiciary are both independently considering the legal issues and whether the current framework has kept pace with emerging technologies and people’s expectations about how their most sensitive personal data is used.”

Denham continued: “Facial recognition technology is a priority area for the Information Commissioner’s Office and, when necessary, we will not hesitate to use our investigative and enforcement powers to protect people’s legal rights. We’ve launched an investigation following concerns reported in the media regarding the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London, which thousands of people pass through every day. As well as requiring detailed information from the relevant organisations about how the technology is used, we will also inspect the system and its operation on-site to assess whether or not it complies with data protection law.”

In addition, Denham said: “Put simply, any organisations wanting to use facial recognition technology must comply with the law and they must do so in a fair, transparent and accountable way. They must have documented how and why they believe their use of the technology is legal, proportionate and justified. We support keeping people safe, but new technologies and new uses of sensitive personal data must always be balanced against people’s legal rights.”

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