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London police to use face scan tech, stoking privacy fears

Kelvin Chan
Associated Press

London police say they will start using live facial recognition cameras in operational deployments, in a major advance for the controversial technology.

The Metropolitan Police Service said Friday it will use the cameras to automatically scan the faces of people passing through small targeted areas where intelligence suggests serious offenders will be found. It did not say how many areas or cameras would be deployed.

Real-time crowd surveillance by police in the British capital is among the more aggressive uses of facial recognition in wealthy democracies and raises questions about how the technology will enter people’s daily lives. Authorities and private companies are eager to use facial recognition but rights groups say it threatens civil liberties and represents an expansion of surveillance.

A security cctv camera by the Olympic Stadium at the Olympic Park in London.

London’s decision to use the technology defies warnings from rights groups, lawmakers and independent experts, Amnesty International researcher Anna Bacciarelli said.

“Facial recognition technology poses a huge threat to human rights, including the rights to privacy, non-discrimination, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” Bacciarelli said.

London police said the facial recognition system, which runs on technology from Japan’s NEC, looks for faces in crowds to see if they match any on “watchlists” of people wanted for serious and violent offences, including gun and knife crimes and child sexual exploitation.

“As a modern police force, I believe that we have a duty to use new technologies to keep people safe in London,” Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said in a statement.

London police previously carried out a series of trial deployments of the technology. But University of Essex professors who monitored them said in an independent report last year that the trials raised concerns about their legal basis and the accuracy of the equipment.

Soccer fans crowd outside the Cardiff City soccer stadium ahead of the English Championship match against Swansea City, in Cardiff, Wales on Jan. 12, 2020. The South Wales police deployed facial recognition surveillance equipment in a test to monitor crowds arriving for the weekend soccer match in real-time.

The British have long become accustomed to video surveillance, with cameras used in public spaces for decades by security forces fighting terror threats. Real-time monitoring will put that tolerance to the test.

London is the sixth most monitored city in the world, with nearly 628,000 surveillance cameras, according to a report by Comparitech.

London is not the only British police force using facial recognition technology. The South Wales police force has been using it since 2017 to monitor crowds at big events like soccer games, royal visits and airshows.