Met police to begin using live facial recognition cameras - THE GUARDIAN UK
Civil liberties groups condemn move as ‘a breathtaking assault on our rights’
A camera being used during trials at Scotland Yard for the new facial recognition system Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
The Metropolitan police will start using live facial recognition, Britain’s biggest force has announced.
The decision to deploy the controversial technology, which has been dogged by privacy concerns and questions over its lawfulness, was immediately condemned by civil liberties groups, who described the move as “a breathtaking assault on our rights”.
But the Met said that after two years of trials, it was ready to use the cameras within a month. The force said it would deploy the technology overtly and only after consulting communities in which it is to be used.
Nick Ephgrave, an assistant commissioner, said: “As a modern police force, I believe that we have a duty to use new technologies to keep people safe in London. Independent research has shown that the public support us in this regard.”
The Met said the cameras would be linked to a database of suspects. If the system detects someone who is not on the database, their information will not be kept. But if it generates an alert because the person is wanted, an officer will speak to them.
Johanna Morley, a senior technologist with the Met, said the system was 70% effective at spotting wanted suspects. It falsely identified someone as wanted one in a thousand times, she said.
Civil liberties groups reacted angrily to the move, with one promising to mount an immediate challenge to the decision.
Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, called the decision “an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the UK”.
Disputing the Met’s figures on its effectiveness, she said: “It flies in the face of the independent review showing the Met’s use of facial recognition was likely unlawful, risked harming public rights and was 81% inaccurate.
“This is a breathtaking assault on our rights and we will challenge it, including by urgently considering next steps in our ongoing legal claim against the Met and the home secretary.”
What is facial recognition?
This is a catch-all term for any technology that involves cataloguing and recognising human faces, typically by recording the unique ratios between an individual’s facial features, such as eyes, nose and mouth.
Why is it in the news?
After a trial of the technology, London's Metropolitan police have said they will start to use it in London within a month. On Friday, the force said it would be used to find suspects on “watchlists” for serious and violent crime, as well as to help find children and vulnerable people. Scotland Yard said the public would be aware of the surveillance, with the cameras being placed in open locations and officers handing out explanatory leaflets.
How is it used in policing?
The technology greatly improves the power of surveillance. At the simple end, a facial recognition system connected to a network of cameras can automatically track an individual as they move in and out of coverage, even if no other information is known about them. At the more complex end, a facial recognition system fuelled by a large database of labelled data can enable police to pinpoint a person of interest across a city of networked cameras.
Why is it controversial?
Facial recognition frequently sparks two distinct fears: that it will not work well enough, or that it will work too well.
The first concern highlights the fact that the technology, still in its infancy, is prone to false positives and false negatives, particularly when used with noisy imagery, such as that harvested from CCTV cameras installed years or decades ago. When that technology is used to arrest, convict or imprison people, on a possibly faulty basis, it can cause real harm. Worse, the errors are not evenly distributed; facial recognition systems have regularly been found to be inaccurate at identifying people with darker skin.
But the technology will improve, meaning the second concern is harder to shake. This is the fear that facial recognition inherently undermines freedom by enabling perfect surveillance of everyone, all the time. The fear is not hypothetical; already, Chinese cities have proudly used the technology to publicly shame citizens for jaywalking, or leaving the house in their pyjamas.
A spokesperson for the campaign group Liberty said: “This is a dangerous, oppressive and completely unjustified move by the Met. Facial recognition technology gives the state unprecedented power to track and monitor any one of us, destroying our privacy and our free expression.”
Ephgrave said the technology would not be used indiscriminately and that its initial use would be limited. “The Met will begin operationally deploying live facial recognition (LFR) at locations where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders,” he said. “Each deployment will have a bespoke ‘watch list’, made up of images of wanted individuals, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences.”
Last year, after a series of court fights, judges ruled in favour of live facial recognition. Police believe it paved the way for Friday’s announcement.
South Wales police already use live facial recognition. The Met said that system was less effective at scanning dense crowds.
Ephgrave said: “At a deployment, cameras will be focused on a small, targeted area to scan passersby. The cameras will be clearly signposted and officers deployed to the operation will hand out leaflets about the activity. The technology, which is a standalone system, is not linked to any other imaging system, such as CCTV, body-worn video or ANPR [automatic number-plate recognition].”