Privacy campaigners warn of UK facial recognition ‘epidemic’ – The Guardian

Privacy campaigners have warned of an “epidemic” of facial recognition use in shopping centres, museums, conference centres and other private spaces around the UK.

An investigation by Big Brother Watch (BBW), which tracks the use of surveillance, has found that private companies are spearheading a rollout of the controversial technology.

The group published its findings a day after the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, announced she was opening an investigation into the use of facial recognition in a major new shopping development in central London.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has already raised questions about the legality of the use of facial recognition at the 27-hectare (67-acre) Granary Square site in King’s Cross after its owners admitted using the technology “in the interests of public safety”.

BBW said it had uncovered that sites across the country were using facial recognition, often without warning visitors.

Secret police trials had taken place last year in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre, which could have scanned more than 2 million visitors. A spokesperson for its owner, British Land, said: “We do not operate facial recognition at any of our assets. However, over a year ago we conducted a short trial at Meadowhall, in conjunction with the police, and all data was deleted immediately after the trial.”

Up to 15 million visitors to the Trafford Centre in Manchester could also have been scanned by facial recognition, until an intervention by the surveillance camera commissioner pressured the site to stop using the technology.

It also emerged that Liverpool’s World Museum had scanned visitors’ faces during an exhibition on Chinese history in 2018. The National Museums Liverpool group, which controls the site and others, including the International Slavery Museum, told BBW it was “currently testing feasibility of using similar technology in the future”.

In Birmingham, the Millennium Point conference centre revealed in its privacy policy that it used facial recognition “at the request of law enforcement”. The area around the centre has been the scene of demonstrations by trade unionists and anti-racism campaigners.

Quick guide

How is facial recognition software being used?

Automated facial recognition (AFR) is technology that can identify people by analysing and comparing facial features to those held in a database.

You might recognise it from auto-tagging of pictures on Facebook or on your phone, but it is increasingly being used out in the real world.

Shoppers at retail parks such as Westfield, for example, are routinely scanned and recorded by dozens of hidden cameras built into the centres’ digital advertising billboards. The cameras can determine not only your age and gender, but your mood, cueing up tailored advertisements within seconds, thanks to facial detection technology.

Police have also used the technology to scan crowds at events and demonstrations to identify ‘people of interest’.

In the UK a court action claims that south Wales police violated privacy and data protection rights by using facial recognition technology on individuals. The police force defended their actions saying that AFR was similar to the use of DNA to solve crimes and would have little impact on those who were not suspects. 

The UK’s biometrics commissioner has warned that police forces are pushing ahead with the use of AFR systems in the absence of clear laws on whether, when or how the technology should be employed.

The pressure group Liberty has denounced AFR as ‘arsenic in the water supply of democracy’, and the city of San Francisco has already barred the use of automatic facial recognition by law enforcement.

A crucial argument against police’s deployment of the technology is that it doesn’t yet work very well. It is especially inaccurate and prone to bias when used against people of colour: a test of Amazon’s facial recognition software found that it falsely identified 28 members of US Congress as known criminals, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus disproportionately represented.

The privacy policies of a number of casinos and betting shops also refer to their use of facial recognition surveillance, including Ladbrokes, Coral and the Hippodrome Casino London.

Silkie Carlo, BBW’s director, described the rollout as an “epidemic of facial recognition in the UK”. She said: “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.”

Last month, the House of Commons science and technology committee said authorities should cease trials of facial recognition technology until a legal framework was established.

In a report on the government’s approach to biometrics and forensics, the MPs referred to automatic facial recognition testing by the Metropolitan police and South Wales police, noting that an evaluation of both trials by the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group had raised questions about accuracy and bias.

Privacy campaigners warn of UK facial recognition ‘epidemic’ – The Guardian