Regulation would be a life raft for live facial recognition — we need a ban.

By Silkie Carlo. You can also read this on Medium.

There is now an epidemic of live facial recognition surveillance in the UK. Police have been quietly rolling it out for four years, but now the floodgates have burst open. It’s no longer just the police, but the commercial sector that is tracking our faces.

We’ve discovered that shopping centres, museums, conference centres, casinos, bars — even convenience stores — are now using live facial recognition cameras in the UK. The two major shopping centres that have used live facial recognition — Manchester’s Trafford Centre and Sheffield’s Meadhowhall — have such an enormous footfall, they could have scanned around 17 million faces alone.

The entire King’s Cross area of London — a major transport hub, and now a privately owned retail and office area, home to Google — has been secretly operating facial recognition. Around 175 people pass through the stations at King’s Cross every year; 20 million are expected to go through the new retail development. How many have had their faces scanned?

The World Museum in Liverpool secretly used live facial recognition, specifically to monitor visitors to their exhibition ‘China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors’, thousands of whom were children on school trips learning about the dictator’s legacy. The irony can be lost on no one.

In all of these cases, we don’t know how long it has been going on, what watch lists are being used, what companies are watching us, or where our biometric data goes. The level of secrecy is unprecedented.

What we do know is that tens of millions of people in the UK have had their faces biometrically monitored whilst going about their daily lives, without knowing about it.

Police in the UK now seem to be so committed to live facial recognition, they’ve developed an app and are using it on smartphones to scan people whilst on the move. It’s one step away from Chinese police’s infamous facial recognition-equipped ‘smart glasses’.

Confusingly, police claim they’re merely ‘trialling’ the technology, but I can’t remember any other police trial that has gone on for four years, has no end date, has millions of pounds investment, rejects the adverse findings of independent reviews, and persists despite human rights legal challenges (including one from us).

In a free society, citizens aren’t subjected to arbitrary identity checks. We would outrightly reject fingerprint or DNA checkpoints in public spaces — the analogue counterparts to facial recognition cameras. But in a country watched by facial recognition cameras, our identities would be checked all the time — and we wouldn’t even necessarily know about it. We’d become walking ID cards tracked by a shadow surveillance state at the fingertips of the latest political victor.

We’re fast becoming that surveillance state and, I would argue, the most surveilled democracy in the world. People in Britain are already watched by around 6 million surveillance cameras. In fact, we have the same proportion of surveillance cameras to population size as China.

The more of those cameras that are fitted with facial recognition software, the more privacy risks extinction in Britain.

This is a very real threat. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back in. There’s little citizens can do about it — as tech expert Dr Stephanie Hare puts it, we can’t “reset” our faces the way we reset passwords after a privacy breach. Our facial biometric data uniquely identifies us and our bodies — it is the same biometric data associated with our passports, yet it’s being taken by private companies we know nothing about. What’s happening with the data is anyone’s guess.

The epidemic of facial recognition we’re now facing was entirely preventable — we’ve been warning about it for years. I’ve been to security expos in London and seen scores of private facial recognition companies, including Chinese vendors, enthusiastically pushing nightmarish iterations of the technology. We’ve repeatedly urged Government, politicians and regulators to stop the outbreak of live facial recognition, but they haven’t. This inaction has read as a green light to many, especially to police. The UK appears to be a test bed for live facial recognition — our citizens are unknowingly guinea pigs.

Attitudes towards live facial recognition are far more encouraging in other Western democracies. Trials have been sparse and far more controlled in mainland Europe.

Nevertheless, the UK’s lurch towards pervasive face recognition surveillance has energised an international debate. It was reported this week that the EU Commission will propose “sweeping regulation” of facial recognition (not specifying whether of live facial recognition or other forms). However, regulation will not prevent the erosion of civil liberties that this tide of live facial recognition ensues — regulation is more likely to act as a life raft for facial recognition companies, giving them a defined space in which to spy on us. The incumbent President of the EU Commission and former German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is hardly known for her commitment to civil liberties. She is under investigation for awarding lucrative defence ministry contracts to consultancies she had personal connections to. In her “agenda for Europe”, she says the EU should “define standards” for new technologies “that become the global norm”. That kind of aspiration makes the stakes pretty high if the EU gets it wrong.

In my view, we already have the global standards we need — human rights. It is vital we don’t lose sight that the use of facial recognition for public surveillance is first a foremost a human rights issue. The right to privacy is merely notional if facial recognition cameras are used all over our cities to constantly check our identities. No amount of regulation can change that the human rights problems inherent to live facial recognition as a technology.

Ursula von der Leyen

Real leadership has been taken in the US, where three cities — San Francisco, Somerville and Oakland — have banned the use of live facial recognition.

Will we follow suit at home? It is unclear. British politics has long borne two dissonant features: great pride in civil liberties and great complacency in the risk of them being breached. And for some, the specter of digital oppression has given the psychologically comforting adage ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ new value. This vapid retort, in favour of surrendering privacy and having unconditional faith in the benevolence of Governments, is archaic, anti-democratic and overlooks the development of democracy over at least the last 70 years. It is a position that implies abandonment of human rights as the bedrock of modern democracy altogether.

On the precipice of a technological revolution, and in the context of major political turbulence, these retrograde attitudes are dangerous. But thankfully, I believe they are held by a minority.

Plus, no one has unconditional faith in private companies. Our discovery that private companies are secretly scanning millions of innocent people with live facial recognition cameras has tangibly alarmed the British public. The watchlists used by retailers are privately compiled, often populated with ‘undesirable’ people not guilty of any crime whatsoever. The situation is clearly out of control. The Information Commissioner can only begin so many investigations into facial recognition operators before it becomes merely an absurd regulatory rite of passage for these companies.

Effective preventative action is urgently needed. The calls for a moratorium on live facial recognition from politicians, journalists, campaigners, academics and even regulators are now overwhelming. It’s imperative that Government quickly puts a ban in place. Because if live facial recognition surveillance continues to take root in the Britain’s public spaces, the right to privacy will become a forgotten relic of liberal democracy and this will be a very different society indeed.