An investigation conducted by privacy rights group Big Brother Watch has revealed a number of disturbing facial recognition deployments across the UK.
The rights group claims to have uncovered a facial recognition ‘epidemic’ at privately owned sites throughout the country, with major property developers, shopping centres, casinos and museums using the controversial technology.
Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, commented: “There’s an epidemic of facial recognition in the UK. The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing.
“Facial recognition is the perfect tool of oppression and the widespread use we’ve uncovered indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency.
“We now know that many millions of innocent people will have their faces scanned with this surveillance without knowing about it, whether by police or by private companies.”
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Details of the investigation follow a week of furious debate over the use of facial recognition technology, with a system at King’s Cross, London, in the spotlight. A report first published by the Financial Times showed that a live facial recognition system was being used across a site encompassing more than 67 acres at the bustling London station.
Intense media coverage of the system has since prompted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to look into the system’s deployment and impact upon commuters.
Facial Recognition ‘Epidemic’
The investigation by Big Brother Watch uncovered the use of live facial recognition systems at Sheffield’s Meadowhall, one of the largest shopping centres in the North of England. Police trials of the system, which took place last year, could have scanned the faces of more than two million visitors, the rights group claims.
Manchester’s Trafford Centre was subject to intense criticism last year after it was revealed facial recognition technology had been deployed at the site. The centre was pressured to stop using the technology following an intervention by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner.
At this particular shopping centre, it is estimated that up to 15 million people were scanned during the course of the tech’s deployment.
This Meadowhall shopping centre is owned by a private company, British Land. Currently, the firm owns large areas within London, including parts of Ealing Broadway, Canada Water, Broadgate and Paddington.
A Dark Irony
Big Brother Watch’s investigation also revealed that Liverpool’s World Museum scanned visitors faces with facial recognition technology during an exhibition showcasing Chinese history.
The exhibition, titled ‘China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors’ featured at the museum in 2018. Silkie Carlo highlighted the “dark irony” of the tech’s deployment during this exhibition, noting that “this authoritarian tool is rarely seen outside of China”.
Carlo warned that many visitors whose faces were scanned during this deployment “will have been schoolchildren”.
She said: “The idea of a British museum secretly scanning the faces of children visiting an exhibition on the first emperor of China is chilling.
“Parliament must follow in the footstep of legislators in the US and urgently ban this authoritarian surveillance from public spaces.”
A number of casinos and bookmakers across the UK also have policies that refer to their use of facial recognition technology, Big Brother Watch revealed, including Ladbrokes, Coral and Hippodrome Casino London.