Just across from the Microsoft store on London’s Regent Street, and just outside the entrance to the Oxford Circus tube station, the London Police have activated facial recognition technology that uses cameras on top of police vans.
The London Metropolitan Police has insisted the rollout of “live” facial recognition across the British capital aims to reduce serious crime. But its critics decry its impact on privacy in one of the world’s busiest commercial districts.
The technology is relatively simple: cameras scan the faces in the crowd, and when one matches with one on their list of wanted criminal suspects, the police react instantaneously.
But there is concern over claims the technology may falsely identify people as criminals, especially those from ethnic minorities.
A North American NGO called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a report in which it tested technology from nearly 100 different companies, and found that in most cases empirical evidence showed that age, race and gender affected accuracy. It noted that some could misidentify people in certain groups up to 100 times more frequently than others.
Another human rights organisation, Liberty, also wanted to make its presence in the camera area known by handing out flyers asking passers-by to “resist facial recognition”. They believe the technology is most likely to misidentify women and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. For this reason, they are opposed to the police force’s mass-scanning of all faces in range and the consequent harvesting of personal biometric data without consent.
For their part, the Japanese company that provided the technology, NEC, says the system tries to find matches with a pre-collected gallery of the faces of known criminal suspects. As a result, the live facial recognition technology does not store the faces of people who do not appear on any database.
Furthermore, the faces of those who aren’t on watch lists are blurred out in the footage viewed by officers and are not stored on police computers. According to police sources, the cameras will only be used at specific locations for a limited time.
Despite this, the list of organisations coming out against these police measures continues to grow. The Big Brother Watch organisation believes that never before have London citizens been subjected to identity checks without suspicion, let alone on a mass scale. They argue the technology makes citizens less free and no safer.