The use of facial recognition surveillance technology by the police and private companies has serious human rights implications, according to a cross-party group of MPs and privacy campaigners.
Earlier this week, policing minister Chris Philp proposed giving police access to more than 45 million images stored in the passport photos database for use in facial recognition technology, to help catch criminals like shoplifters and burglars.
But a joint statement backed by dozens of MPs and peers, including former Brexit secretary David Davis MP, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, Green MP Caroline Lucas and former shadow attorney-general Shami Chakrabarti, warns of “serious concerns” about the “incompatibility with human rights” and “discriminatory impacts” of facial recognition surveillance.
It also said expanded use of the technology lacked sufficient legal basis and a democratic mandate.
Governments around the world are considering whether to prohibit or permit the use of live facial recognition. While the European Parliament has endorsed a blanket ban on police using AI-powered facial recognition surveillance under the AI Act and several US cities have banned the technology, the UK’s approach has been described as an “outlier”.
There are over six million surveillance cameras in the UK – more per citizen than any other country in the world, except China.
The use of live facial recognition surveillance has recently increased in the retail sector and some police forces. Critics have raised concerns about the composition of watchlists, which police use to keep tabs on protestors and people with mental health issues who are not wanted for any offences.
Live facial recognition surveillance, whereby individuals’ faces are biometrically scanned by cameras in real-time and compared against a database, has been used in recent months at the coronation of King Charles II, sports events, concerts and across central London.
According to privacy campaigners Big Brother Watch, over 89 per cent of UK police facial recognition alerts to date have wrongly identified members of the public as people of interest.
Researchers have also found that commercial facial recognition software can come with in-built racial and gender biases, failing to recognise the gender of the darkest-skinned women in approximately half of cases.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “This important call from MPs to urgently stop live facial recognition represents the greatest involvement parliamentarians have ever had in Britain’s approach to facial recognition surveillance.
“With the government now planning to turn all of our passport photos into mugshots for facial recognition scanning, yet again absent any democratic scrutiny, this intervention could not come at a more important time. This dangerously authoritarian technology has the potential to turn populations into walking ID cards in a constant police line-up.
“The UK’s reckless approach to face surveillance makes us a total outlier in the democratic world, especially against the backdrop of the EU’s proposed ban.”
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