‘The UK is currently witnessing a tug of war over facial recognition. On the streets of London and inSouth Wales, live systems have been deployed by the police, supported by the UK government. But in the Scottish parliament, the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing is trying to halt use of the technology.
I recently gave evidence to the Scottish sub-committee’s inquiry, highlighting the cost of this technology in terms of its damage to freedom, trust and inclusivity in society. This comes not just from the use of facial recognition but in the ways it is designed and tested as well. And yet the benefits are often exaggerated – or have yet to be proven.
Facial recognition systems have already been tested and deployed across the UK. Investigative journalist Geoff White has created a map to show where systems are being, or have been, used, identifying dozens of sites across the country. Another map for the US shows a similar situation. If you see facial recognition technologies being used somewhere you can let such sites know to add the location and details. The results can be surprising.
Airports are a common place you may see facial recognition used and it is typically found in automatic border control machines. Airlines have also been testing the systems at the gate, expanding the data collection beyond government to private companies. Meanwhile, advertising screens in Piccadilly Circus in London, as well as Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham, reportedly use the technology to target ads according to the age, gender and mood of people in the crowd.
Shopping centres and public spaces such as museums in cities across the UK have used the technology for security purposes. Football matches, airshows, concerts, Notting Hill Carnival and even the Remembrance Sunday service now fall under the invasive eye of facial recognition.
It is not always clear whether facial recognition is used to catch known criminals from a watchlist or simply to add an extra layer of security to public spaces and events. But the South Wales and Metropolitan police forces have admitted they are using it to try to catch elusive criminals. They claim to only use specific watchlists of dangerous individuals, but leaked documents show that they also include “persons where intelligence is required” – which could be just about anyone.
Research shows the UK public largely supports facial recognition, provided it benefits society and has appropriate limits. Yet there is little proof that facial recognition actually provides significant social benefit given the costs to privacy.
On a practical level, facial recognition technology doesn’t yet work very well. A 2019 independent review by the University of Essex found that only one in five matches by the Metropolitan Police’s system could confidently be considered accurate. South Wales Police has claimed its use of the technology has enabled 450 arrests. But only 50 were actually made using live facial recognition. The rest were down to conventional CCTV and face-matching or having officers on the street.’