UK privacy advocates describe “epidemic” of facial recognition, as government opens investigation

UK privacy advocates describe “epidemic” of facial recognition, as government opens investigation

The use of facial recognition technology in Britain’s public spaces is reaching “epidemic” proportions, according to an investigation by the UK privacy group Big Brother Watch (BBW). 

Their findings were published a day after news that the government’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating the use of facial recognition surveillance in a major new shopping development in the King’s Cross district of London. 

The ICO said it is “deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces,” and London Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote to the company that owns the new Granary Square development, inquiring whether they believe their use of the technology is legal. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site may have already been scanned without their knowledge, according to The Independent

In July, the House of Commons science and technology committee called for authorities to stop using the technology until a legal framework could be established.

“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,” according to ICO commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “That is especially the case if it is done without people’s knowledge or understanding.”

Now, the new BBW report says that a range of other public spaces across the UK have been using facial recognition without informing visitors, including shopping centers, museums, conference centers, and other areas. 

At Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping center, the technology was briefly trialed in cooperation with authorities, scanning up to two million people. A spokesperson for its owner 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.”

The Trafford center in Manchester also scanned visitors with the technology for six months, until it was pressured by the surveillance camera commissioner to halt the practice. Up to 15 million visitors may have been scanned at the Trafford center. 

Liverpool’s World Museum trialed facial recognition during a 2018 exhibition, and told BBW that it is “currently testing feasibility of using similar technology in the future.”

The report also pointed to instances of facial recognition use at casinos and conference centers. 

According to BBW director Silkie Carlo:

“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.”

Photo by Stan Petersen from Pixabay