Facial-Recognition Cameras Challenged in Britain

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Police in Britain are testing cameras that scan faces in public spaces and match them in real-time to the faces of wanted criminals. On Friday, Big Brother Watch, a London-based civil liberties group, said it would seek to stop the use of these cameras, lest Britain become a surveillance state, like China.

As early as next week, Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, said the group’s attorneys will challenge the use of the cameras in a process known as judicial review in Britain’s High Court.

“Our legal challenge will be the first in the world against the police use of automated facial recognition,” Carlo said in a telephone interview.

The case is expected be brought against the Metropolitan Police Service, which is London’s police force, and the Home Office, Britain’s ministry overseeing law enforcement agencies.

Police in London have used the technology on several occasions, including during the Notting Hill Carnival, a major street festival in London that celebrates Britain’s Caribbean heritage.

House of Lords member Jenny Jones of Britain’s Green Party is also a plaintiff. Jones says she is concerned that the technology will be used to track whistleblowers and campaigners she meets with in confidence as part of her parliamentary duties. She was not immediately available for an interview.

The plaintiffs say that police use of the technology is unlawful and a violation of human rights. They say the technology has a chilling effect on democracy and freedom of expression and erodes the right to privacy.

Carlo called it a “new Orwellian-style form of surveillance,” referring to George Orwell and his novel “1984,” in which citizens are watched over by an authoritarian regime ruled by an all-powerful figure called Big Brother.

“There is no legal basis for it,” Carlo said.

In letters to the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office in June, the plaintiffs demanded that police stop using the cameras or face a legal challenge.

Carlo said the police force responded to those letters in an unsatisfactory manner late Thursday and that the legal challenge now will proceed.

Jim Avey, a spokesman at New Scotland Yard, said officials capable of responding to press inquiries were unavailable Friday because they were busy with the visit of President Donald Trump to Britain.

Sarah Nevins, a press officer at the Home Office, said the technology helps police tackle crime but that it must be deployed in a way “that is ethical, proportionate and respects an individual’s privacy.”

She added that improvements, such as creating an oversight board, are planned.

The cameras use facial recognition software that measures scanned faces and draws up a map of a person’s face using a numerical code. Once this numerical map of a face is created, an algorithm seeks a match with facial images in a database.

“The face of each and every person passing by an automated facial recognition camera will be scanned and analyzed, effectively subjecting every person within view to a biometric identity check,” Big Brother Watch said in a recent report.

The report said that real-time use of the technology is akin to having the general public “asked for their papers without their consent.”

The plaintiffs say the technology is deeply flawed and unreliable. Big Brother Watch says the technology has been found to be inaccurate in 95 percent of “matches.” It says police in London and in South Wales, where the technology is also being deployed, have stopped innocent people and asked them to prove their identity.

“Already in the UK we have the most expensive and authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western democracy,” Carlo said.

She said the use of automated facial recognition threatens to turn Britain into a surveillance state similar to China, where the state has embraced automated facial recognition technology. In some Chinese cities, jaywalkers are fined when they are caught by these cameras.

“There’s a risk it could spread throughout Britain and from here to the US and the EU,” she said.

The Metropolitan Police have said in that the technology is being tested in a range of places, including “public order events, sports events, and crowded public spaces.”

Police say they are seeing how well it can “support standard policing activity.”

The police say the public is informed when the technology is used, through handing out of leaflets, by posters and officers telling the public about the cameras.

The Metropolitan Police say the use of the technology will be subjected to an independent evaluation at the end of the year.

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