Met Police facial recognition plans "a breathtaking assault" on rights

The Metropolitan Police's plans to use live facial recognition (LFR) on London streets has been slammed by privacy campaigners as a "serious threat to civil liberties".

The Met Police said last week it would soon begin operational use of live facial recognition in London, using technology from NEC to tackle serious crime.

The standalone LFR systems will be used in specific, targeted areas to look for offenders on a watch list. The use of LFR cameras will be announced via signs while officers will hand out leaflets; images of passersby won't be collected or stored.

“We all want to live and work in a city which is safe: the public rightly expect us to use widely available technology to stop criminals," said Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave in a statement.

"Equally I have to be sure that we have the right safeguards and transparency in place to ensure that we protect people’s privacy and human rights. I believe our careful and considered deployment of live facial recognition strikes that balance."

Others disagree that the system strikes that balance. Silkie Carlo, director at Big Brother Watch, said the move "flies in the face" of an independent review that deemed police use of facial recognition was likely unlawful and 81% inaccurate.

"This decision represents an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the UK," Carlo said. "This is a breath-taking assault on our rights and we will challenge it, including by urgently considering next steps in our ongoing legal claim against the Met and the Home Secretary."

She added: "This move instantly stains the new Government’s human rights record and we urge an immediate reconsideration."

London mayor Sadiq Khan has previously spoken out against facial recognition on a private residential development at Kings Cross, writing to the developer to raise his concerns. However, in response to the Met's plans, he said City Hall will merely monitor its use.

"New technology has a role in keeping Londoners safe, but it’s equally important that the Met are proportionate in the way it is deployed and are transparent about where and when it is used in order to retain the trust of all Londoners," he said in a statement.

The Information Commissioner's Office said it would also be keeping a close watch, but said the Met had taken on-board its previous advice about avoiding privacy intrusion. "This is an important new technology with potentially significant privacy implications for UK citizens," the ICO said in a statement. The watchdog added that the use of facial recognition may meet the threshold of "strict necessity" if it is well-governed and used in a targeted way.

One of the concerns with facial recognition beyond surveillance is its inaccuracy — it often simply doesn't work. One review of a trial by police looked at 42 uses, finding just eight were accurately identified.

“Most times they didn’t actually find the people they were looking for," Daragh Murray, a lecturer at the University of Essex who wrote the report, told the New York Times. "From just a technological perspective, you have to question the utility."

The move by the police to use live facial recognition comes amid other cities banning the technology, as Europe considers a five-year moratorium to allow regulations to be put in place, and as British MPs call for a ban until issues such as bias and data retention can be addressed.