MPs and rights groups call for “urgent stop” to facial recognition surveillance

  • MPs across parties including David Davis MP, Diane Abbott MP, Jo Swinson MP, and Caroline Lucas MP call for an “immediate stop” to face surveillance
  • The call is backed by 25 rights and technology groups including Big Brother Watch, Amnesty International, and Ada Lovelace Institute
  • The statement follows revelations of an “epidemic” of facial recognition in the UK, including use at King’s Cross, shopping centres and museums

MPs and rights groups have called for UK police and private companies to “immediately stop” using live facial recognition surveillance in public spaces.

In a joint call published by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, the groups cite “serious concerns” about “incompatibility with human rights”, the “lack of an evidence base”, “discriminatory impact” and the “lack of a democratic mandate” for facial recognition surveillance.[1]

Senior MPs across parties including former Minister David Davis MP, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott MP, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson MP and Green MP Caroline Lucas are among parliamentarians backing the call. They join 25 rights, race equality and expert technology groups in calling for face surveillance to be urgently halted in the UK.

The call follows revelations of the surveillance being used in privately-owned public spaces, including the King’s Cross Estate in London, Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, the World Museum in Liverpool and Birmingham’s Millennium Point centre.[2] Big Brother Watch estimates that “tens of millions” of people have been scanned and compared to “secret watch-lists” by facial recognition surveillance cameras in the UK without knowing about it.

The Metropolitan Police has used facial recognition surveillance 10 times across London since 2016, including twice at Notting Hill Carnival. In 2017, the force controversially used the technology to identify innocent people thought to have mental health problems at Remembrance Sunday.[3]

An independent review into the use of live facial recognition commissioned by the Metropolitan Police found that over the four-year trials, 81% of ‘matches’ had wrongly identified innocent people as ‘wanted’. The review concluded it was “highly possible” that the force’s use of the technology would be found unlawful if challenged in court.[4]

Big Brother Watch initiated a crowdfunded legal challenge against the Metropolitan Police and Home Secretary for their “lawless” use of facial recognition surveillance last year. The case has been paused pending the Metropolitan Police’s decision about their future use of the technology, which is yet to be published.[5]

Campaigners are concerned that a recent unsuccessful legal challenge against the use of live facial recognition by South Wales Police could lead to further use of facial recognition by both police and private companies.

South Wales Police has used live facial recognition since 2017, including at an anti-arms fair demonstration and a Champions League football match where over 2,500 spectators were wrongly identified as wanted individuals by the technology.[6]

Three cities in the US – San Francisco, Oakland and Somerville – have passed legislative bans on the use of live facial recognition surveillance, while California is on the brink of passing a state-wide ban.

QUOTES

Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, said:

“No other European country has a face surveillance epidemic like the UK, aligning us with the likes of China rather than our democratic counterparts. The British public do not want to be walking ID cards subjected to a constant police line up.

Tens of millions of people will now have been scanned by facial recognition cameras in this country, yet very few of us even know about it. The secret growth of this dangerous mass surveillance tool is undemocratic and unacceptable.

There must be an urgent stop to this privacy disaster before it’s too late.”

David Davis MP said:

“Police use of facial recognition is potentially a serious invasion of individual privacy and civil liberties. We need a proper legal framework fit for these emerging technologies to balance policing effectiveness and privacy.

“There must be an immediate halt to the use of these systems to give Parliament the chance to debate it properly and establish proper rules for the police to follow.”

Anna Bacciarelli, Technology and Human Rights Adviser at Amnesty International, said:

“Facial recognition systems pose serious threats to human rights – including the rights to privacy, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, association and assembly. Yet this technology is being used across the UK without adequate oversight and accountability.

“Given the huge risks to human rights, we urgently need a public debate about how and why this technology is being used – and who stands to benefit from its use. Until the human rights risks are addressed, facial recognition systems have no place in our public spaces.”

NOTES

For enquires and interviews, please contact 07730 439257 / 020 8075 8480 / info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk

[1] The full statement and list of signatories can be found here

[2] See https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/all-media/facial-recognition-epidemic-in-the-uk/

[3] See https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/all-campaigns/face-off-campaign/#list-met

[4] See https://48ba3m4eh2bf2sksp43rq8kk-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/London-Met-Police-Trial-of-Facial-Recognition-Tech-Report.pdf

[5] See https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/face-off/

[6] See https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/all-campaigns/face-off-campaign/#list-swp