Glasgow Accused of Wasting £1.2m on ‘White Elephant” Surveillance System

Suspect Search

After being installed five years ago, a costly and controversial facial recognition CCTV system in Glasgow city centre has yet to be switched on due to data protection laws. 

“Suspect Search” is a facial recognition system designed to enable police and community safety workers to track and locate individuals via the city’s CCTV system. Privacy campaigner, Pippa King has described Suspect Search as an expensive white elephant.

A freedom of information (FoI) request has revealed that the system, installed by Police Scotland and Community Safety Glasgow (CSG) has yet to go live because CSG had not completed a data protection impact assessment.

Complications with the operations manual were also cited as a reason for the five-year delay, and CSG explained the hiatus was due to the introduction of GDPR.

Initially, the system was touted as having facial recognition technology but CSG and Glasgow City Council (GCC) offered assurances it would not be used in that manner, saying it was a “person search” system.

Guidance regarding the operation of CCTV systems with facial recognition technologies emphasises the need for transparency with the public over its use and the safeguards put in place to ensure that it does not infringe on civil liberties and human rights. Due to King’s FoI, details of how Suspect Search will work have gradually been released.

The Herald reported last week that the system would be used to monitor and manage crowds and help locate individuals such as vulnerable people and lost children. It will also be deployed to identify people suspected of criminal activity or antisocial behaviour, and it’s expected that 26 people will have access to the software.

Recommended: Sacrificing Freedom in the Name of Safety: The Biometric Paradox

To track an individual, an avatar based on a photograph or descriptions of them can be fed into the system, this enables cameras to search a crowd for potential matches. However, CSG claims that the Suspect Search is not a facial recognition system.

Despite the emphasis put on the system’s usage, King remains unconvinced, “IT is called Suspect Search, that is what it is for,” she said.

According to The Herald, a city council spokeswoman declined to comment or dispute the cost of the system. The council has rejected FOI requests saying that revealing the price would harm the commercial interests of the council and Nice, the security firm that supplied the software.

“GDPR requires the council to carry out a data protection impact assessment prior to using new equipment such as this,” King said. But 11 months after GDPR came into effect, this assessment has yet to be carried out.

“The council also intends to consult with the Information Commissioner’s Office prior to any operational use of the system,” said GCC. According to the spokeswoman, the UK Government’s Surveillance Commission accredited CSG and GCC to his certified standards as a pilot programme, making Glasgow’s CCTV system the only one in Scotland to achieve this standard.

Previously, the council had said the data protection assessment would be completed by February 17 and that the system would go live shortly thereafter.

“The … independent evaluation report will be available in early 2017. A period of operational use will be required before a full evaluation of Suspect Search can be carried out,” it said.

King says that the delay indicates that the system cannot fulfil the laws regarding the retention of personal data on individuals not convicted of a crime.

“Glasgow city’s ‘Suspect Search’ facility, which is behind 70 of the city’s public space CCTV cameras, is not in operation yet because since 2015 the council have not been able to satisfy its obligations under data protection legislation to provide a privacy impact assessment to show that it does not impact on the public’s privacy,” she said.

“Questions need to be asked – why does Glasgow ‘need’ such as privacy-invasive persons of interest tracking system, are the levels of crime through the roof to justify such a system? What legal advice or human rights organisations have they consulted with? Have they actually consulted with the public in Glasgow to see if ‘Suspect Search’ is wanted?

“This system gives ordinary people no choice of the level of surveillance when they want to live normally in Glasgow city centre, with no clear guidelines on the use of such a system, or even public signage that such a system is there, this surveillance creep is the first of its kind should it be switched on in Europe.

“Suspect Search tracking, loitering alerts and geofencing capabilities are completely unnecessary. It effectively turns the community into an open-air prison, posing a massive breach to privacy and civil liberties.”

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