MPs and rights groups have called on police services and private companies across the UK to “immediately stop” using live facial recognition surveillance systems in public spaces. In a joint call to action published by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, the groups cite “serious concerns” about “incompatibility with Human Rights”, the “lack of an evidence base”, “discriminatory impact” and the “lack of a democratic mandate” for facial recognition surveillance.
Senior MPs across parties including David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas are among Parliamentarians backing the call. They join 25 rights, race equality and expert technology groups in calling for face surveillance to be urgently halted in the UK.
The call follows revelations of the surveillance being used in privately-owned public spaces, including the King’s Cross Estate in London, Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, the World Museum in Liverpool and at Birmingham’s Millennium Point Centre.
Big Brother Watch estimates that “tens of millions” of people have been scanned by facial recognition surveillance cameras in the UK without knowing about it and their images compared with those stored on “secret watch lists”.
The Metropolitan Police Service has used facial recognition surveillance ten times across London since 2016, including twice at the Notting Hill Carnival. In 2017, the force controversially used the technology on Remembrance Sunday to identify innocent people thought to have mental health problems.
An independent review into the use of live facial recognition commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Service found that, over the four-year trials, 81% of ‘matches’ had wrongly identified innocent people as ‘wanted’. The review concluded that it was “highly possible” the force’s use of the technology would be found unlawful if challenged in a Court of Law.
Big Brother Watch initiated a crowdfunded legal challenge against the Metropolitan Police Service and the Home Secretary for their “lawless” use of facial recognition surveillance last year. The case has been paused pending the Metropolitan Police Service’s decision about its future use of the technology (which is yet to be published).
Campaigners are concerned that a recent unsuccessful legal challenge against the use of live facial recognition by South Wales Police could lead to further use of facial recognition by both the police and private companies.
South Wales Police has used live facial recognition since 2017, including at an anti-arms fair demonstration and a Champions League football match. Over 2,500 spectators were wrongly identified by the technology as being wanted individuals.
Three cities in the US – San Francisco, Oakland and Somerville – have passed legislative bans on the use of live facial recognition surveillance, while California is presently on the brink of passing a state-wide ban.
Face surveillance “epidemic”
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “No other European country has a face surveillance epidemic like the UK, aligning us with the likes of China rather than our democratic counterparts. The British public do not want to be ‘walking ID cards’ subjected to a constant police line-up. Tens of millions of people will now have been scanned by facial recognition cameras in this country, yet very few of us even know about it. The secret growth of this dangerous mass surveillance tool is undemocratic and unacceptable. There must be an urgent stop to this privacy disaster before it’s too late.”
David Davis added: “Police use of facial recognition is potentially a serious invasion of individual privacy and civil liberties. We need a proper legal framework fit for these emerging technologies to balance policing effectiveness and privacy. There must be an immediate halt to the use of these systems to give Parliament the chance to debate it properly and establish proper rules for the police to follow.”
Anna Bacciarelli, technology and Human Rights advisor at Amnesty International, commented: “Facial recognition systems pose serious threats to Human Rights including the rights to privacy, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, association and assembly. Yet this technology is being used across the UK without adequate oversight and accountability. Given the huge risks to Humjan Rights, we urgently need a public debate about how and why this technology is being used and who stands to benefit from its use. Until the Human Rights risks are addressed, facial recognition systems have no place in our public spaces.”