“The lack of attention being paid to [public safeguards] at such a crucial time is shocking, and destruction of the surveillance camera code that we’ve all been using successfully for over a decade is tantamount to vandalism.”
The United Kingdom is at the leading edge of many of the digital authoritarian trends sweeping ostensibly democratic nations. In one of the many dark ironies of our age, it is the government of George Orwell’s native Britain that is seeking to massively escalate its deployment of live facial recognition (LFR) technologies, despite the concerns raised about its potential impact. In late September, 180 rights groups and tech experts called on governments around the world to halt their use of facial recognition surveillance.
On the other side of the English channel, the EU Parliament has voted for a blanket ban on the use of LFR in public spaces, as too have some US cities. By contrast, the UK government is escalating its deployment of the controversial surveillance technology.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Indian tech billionaire N R Narayana Murthy, is determined to transform the UK into a world leader in AI governance. Said governance apparently involves gutting many of the limited safeguards protecting the public from the potential downsides and dangers of AI, of which there are many. This, of course, is no accident; if there was any time the British public needed those safeguards, it would be right now, as the government unleashes facial recognition technologies across the urban landscape.
As we reported in early August, live facial recognition (LFR) surveillance, where people’s faces are biometrically scanned by cameras in real-time and checked against a database, is being used by an increasing number of UK retailers amid a sharp upsurge in shoplifting — with the blessing, of course, of the UK government. Police forces are also being urged to step up their use of LFR. The technology has also been deployed at the Coronation of King Charles III, sports events including Formula 1, and concerts, despite ongoing concerns about its accuracy as well as the huge ethical and privacy issues it raises.
According to the UK government, this is all about fighting crime:
⚖️ Police are using innovative technology, like facial recognition, to fight crime, apprehend offenders and protect the public.— Home Office (@ukhomeoffice) October 30, 2023
We are encouraging police to double the number of searches made using AI-enabled retrospective facial recognition by May 2024. pic.twitter.com/Z7o1Ge0W3V
But research by Big Brother Watch, a London-based civil rights and privacy organisation, found that more than 89% of UK police facial recognition alerts to date have wrongly identified members of the public as people of interest. The (likely) real object of the government’s interest is not shoplifters, but rather political activists, as a recent article in the Guardian hinted:
[D]ocuments obtained through a freedom of information request revealed that two-thirds of people on a secret watchlist drawn up by Northamptonshire police were not wanted for arrest or suspected of “criminal activity”, prompting campaigners to believe that the majority are likely to have been protesters.
Of 790 names on the watchlist, just 234 people were “wanted for arrest, either on a warrant and/or suspicion of criminal activity”, with 556 others not wanted for arrest.
Critics say using biometric surveillance could impinge on a person’s “freedom of expression” and deter people from protesting. Madeleine Stone, senior advocacy officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “Live facial recognition is a dystopian mass surveillance tool that turns streets into police lineups..”
But the government is not stopping there. Its new Data Protection and Digital Information Act, expected to become law in the Spring of 2024, seeks to abolish the roles of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commission (BSCC), an independent advisory board that was, to some extent, helping to hold the public sector to account for its use of AI. The BSCC’s oversight functions include:
Reviewing police handling of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints.
Maintaining an up-to-date surveillance camera code of practice with standards and guidance for practitioners.
Setting out technical and governance matters for most public body surveillance systems.
Providing guidance on technical and procurement matters to ensure that future surveillance systems are of the right standard and purchased from reliable suppliers.
In its bid to eliminate the BSCC, the government clearly wants to have even freer reign to surveil and control the lives of British. The outgoing Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, who leaves his post today (Oct. 31) with no replacement lined up, described the government’s latest move as “shocking” and “tantamount to vandalism”:
After receiving this report, I am more concerned than ever that, unless the government acts soon, there will be a worrying vacuum in our arrangements for overseeing and regulating these crucial areas of public life just when society needs those safeguards more than ever.
The lack of attention being paid to these important matters at such a crucial time is shocking, and destruction of the surveillance camera code that we’ve all been using successfully for over a decade is tantamount to vandalism…
There is no question that AI-driven biometric surveillance can be intrusive, and that the line between what is private and public surveillance is becoming increasingly blurred. The technology is among us already and the speed of change is dizzying with powerful capabilities evolving and combining in novel and challenging ways…
As proposed, the bill would remove the role of the independent commissioner providing oversight over biometrics databases, replacing it with a “Forensic Information Database Strategy Board.” The legislation does not make clear whether this board will be independent from government. It also allows the Secretary of State to change the databases which the board is required to oversee using statutory instruments, a form of secondary legislation that bypasses parliamentary votes.
This follows an announcement last month by the Minister of Policing Chris Filip of plans to create a vast facial recognition database out of passport photos of people in the UK. It is as brazen and as egregious an example of mission creep as you’re likely to find. At present, photos on the police national database are limited to individuals who have been arrested. The police can also check images from doorbell and dashcam technologies, as well as home and business security cameras. But it could soon have its hands on the photos of 45.7 million passport holders.
“Philp’s plan to subvert Brits’ passport photos into a giant police database is Orwellian and a gross violation of British privacy principles," said Silkie Carlo, director of the civil liberties and privacy campaigning organisation Big Brother Watch:
It means that over 45 million of us with passports who gave our images for travel purposes will, without any kind of consent or the ability to object, be part of secret police lineups. To scan the population’s photos with highly inaccurate facial recognition technology and treat us like suspects is an outrageous assault on our privacy that totally overlooks the real reasons for shoplifting. Philp should concentrate on fixing broken policing rather than building an automated surveillance state.
Sampson reserved particular scorn for the government’s decision to eliminate the UK’s surveillance camera code, which, like other safeguards such as the BSCC, was created just over a decade ago by David Cameron’s coalition government:
The planned loss of the surveillance camera code is a good example of what will be lost if nothing is done. It is the only legal instrument we have in this country that specifically governs public space surveillance. It is widely respected by the police, local authorities and the surveillance industry in general. It’s in one of those things that would have to be invented it didn’t already exist, so it seems absolutely senseless to destroy it now, junking the years of hard work it took to get it established.
A report by the Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP), a collaborative initiative between the University of Stirling’s Management School, the University of St Andrews School of Management, and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Sciences and School of Law, reached a similar conclusion, arguing that the code is widely valued among security and surveillance practitioners. Of the industry experts consulted, Alex Carmichael, from the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board, said:
Without the Surveillance Camera Commissioner you will go back to the old days when it was like the ‘wild west’, which means you can do anything with surveillance cameras so long as you don’t annoy the Information Commissioner…so, there will not be anyone looking at new emerging technologies, looking at their technical requirements or impacts, no one thinking about ethical implications for emerging technologies like face-recognition, it will be a free-for-all.
It would be bad enough if this were happening in isolation, but it isn’t. The UK government has also passed the Online Safety Bill, prompting many messaging apps to threaten to leave the UK due to the potential threat it poses to end-to-end encryption. It has granted police new powers to shut down protests as well as force employees to work during industrial action – or face being sacked. Police forces are also resorting to Section 60AA to require protesters to remove any item being worn for the purpose of concealing their identity. In other words, smile for the cameras!
Together with the Bank of England, the government is pushing hard for the creation of a “digital pound” to replace cash, once again ignoring the public’s deep-seated concerns about the ethical and privacy implications, not to mention their enduring affection for cash. It is also also seriously considering handing over full management of the National Health Service’s federated data platform to Palantir, a US tech giant with intimate ties to defense, intelligence and security industries around the world and whose founder Peter Thiel recently described the UK public’s affection for the NHS as Stockholm Syndrome.
Sadly, most of these trends — particularly the tech-enabled drift toward authoritarianism and centralised technocracy — are generalised among the ostensibly democratic nations of the so-called “Free West.” And as I noted at the beginning of this post, the UK is at the leading edge of almost all of them.