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UK's ICO investigates use of live facial recognition technology

The Information Commissioner’s investigation follows concerns reported in the media regarding the use of the technology in the King’s Cross area of London.

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Use of facial recognition tech must be fair, transparent and accountable, says the ICO
Use of facial recognition tech must be fair, transparent and accountable, says the ICO

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK has issued a statement over concern about the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London.

 

Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said an investigation has been launched following concerns reported in the media. Last week, the Financial Times revealed that the privately owned Kings Cross estate in London was using facial recognition.

 

The BBC reported that mayor of London Sadiq Khan has written to the King’s Cross Central development asking for reassurance its use of facial recognition technology is legal. It reported that Argent, the developer of the 67-acre site, said facial recognition is being used to "ensure public safety".

 

Meanwhile, civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch, is warning of a facial recognition ‘epidemic’ across privately owned sites in the UK.

 

Potential threat to privacy

 

In the ICO’s statement, Denham said: “Scanning people’s faces as they lawfully go about their daily lives, in order to identify them, is a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all. That is especially the case if it is done without people’s knowledge or understanding.

 

“I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector. My office and the judiciary are both independently considering the legal issues and whether the current framework has kept pace with emerging technologies and people’s expectations about how their most sensitive personal data is used.

 

“Facial recognition technology is a priority area for the ICO and when necessary, we will not hesitate to use our investigative and enforcement powers to protect people’s legal rights."

“I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector"

As well as requiring detailed information from the relevant organisations about how the technology is used, the ICO will also inspect the system and its operation on-site to assess whether or not it complies with data protection law.

 

Big Brother Watch investigation

 

The Big Brother Watch investigation claims that major property developers, shopping centres, museums, conference centres and casinos are using the technology in the UK. It uncovered the use of live facial recognition in Sheffield’s Meadowhall, one of the biggest shopping centres in the North of England, in secret police trials that took place last year. The campaign group stated that the trial could have scanned the faces of over two million visitors.

 

The shopping centre is owned by British Land, which owns large areas within London. Each site’s privacy policy says facial recognition may be in use, although British Land insists only Meadowhall has used the surveillance so far, said Big Brother Watch.

 

British Land confirmed to SmartCitiesWorld that it doesn’t operate facial recognition at any of its assets and stated: "However, over a year ago we conducted a short trial at Meadowhall, in conjunction with the police, and all data was deleted immediately after the trial.”

“The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing”

The investigation also revealed that Liverpool’s World Museum scanned visitors with facial recognition surveillance during its exhibition, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors in 2018, and that the Millennium Point conference centre in Birmingham uses facial recognition surveillance “at the request of law enforcement”, according to its privacy policy.

 

“The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing,” said director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo. “Facial recognition is the perfect tool of oppression and the widespread use we’ve found indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency.

 

“We now know that many millions of innocent people will have had their faces scanned with this surveillance without knowing about it, whether by police or by private companies.

 

“Facial recognition surveillance risks making privacy in Britain extinct."

 

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