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Artillery Row

The Met is watching you

We are passively accepting the development of a society of hyper-surveillance

Walking down my local high-street recently, I noticed several unmarked police vans. At first I was reassured by their presence since London has become something of a hotspot for violent crime lately. However, the Met Police were in fact not doing ordinary policing. Instead, they were trying out live facial recognition technology on the unsuspecting public (as a small sticker on the side of the van and a quick Google later revealed). 

Although welcomed by some, it is clear that rapid technological advances haven’t all been rainbows and unicorns. While people are beginning to recognise the fact that technology has had a grave effect on children’s and young people’s mental health, less well understood are the practical implications of rapid digitalisation.

One new statistic published by Parliament in a report on digital technologies estimates that by 2030 30 per cent of UK jobs will be vulnerable to automation by AI and robotics. We also have to consider the ever-encroaching presence of technology in public life. A quick trip to the local supermarket will see you being followed by CCTV cameras your entire way around the shop, the dénouement of which is watching your pale and perhaps slightly sweaty mug as you scan through discounted Baked Beans and several Dairy Milks. 

Yet even though “live facial recognition technology” sounds almost laughably Orwellian, given that much of 1984 is concerned with living under constant monitoring and surveillance, the Met Police has in fact been using facial recognition technology since 2016. 

Mobile units fitted with live facial recognition cameras allow the police to monitor, categorise and track us. This, they tell us, is so that they will be able to improve on their ability to catch perpetrators and prevent crime. 

Live facial recognition cameras work by creating a biometric scan of your face to create a “faceprint”. These faceprints contain sensitive data which, in theory, specifically identify you, much like a fingerprint. In other words, the software analyses a live video feed as the police cameras scan the faces of passers-by, comparing them against a watch list in real time.

Worryingly, according to the Met’s own data, the technology misidentifies people a staggering 85 per cent of the time. Furthermore, as Big Brother Watch points out, the Met’s own report into the technology has shown the algorithm to have a racial bias, discriminating against women and people of colour. Big Brother Watch also estimates that so far over 3,000 people have been wrongly identified by police facial recognition technology. 

Despite this, the Met and South Wales Police have been continuing to use this technology to scan thousands of innocent people in order to build up a database of images. In the last five years alone, over 5 million people’s photographs have been uploaded to the police database without the consent of the individuals themselves.

Concerningly, there is currently no law governing facial recognition in the UK. The police are thus getting away with using this technology on the public by operating in a legal grey area. And while the EU has recently implemented laws to ban the use of live facial recognition technology in public spaces, the UK government has instead announced a £230 million budget for the expansion of live facial recognition technology. 

Facial recognition technology is not just being used by the police and supermarkets, however. Clothes shops, galleries, music venues and bars have all been found to use surveillance. 

In creating such a society, we would be handing state institutions tremendous power

We are in very real danger of having our right to privacy taken from us without our consent. But is this something we really want? Would we actually prefer to live in a society where not just our every transaction, but our every move is monitored? In creating such a society, we would be handing state institutions tremendous power. How much faith do you have that it will not be misused? In the aftermath of the pandemic, it would be naive to feel at all secure.

Britain is already one of the most surveilled countries in the world. Proportionate to the population, we have as many CCTV cameras in Britain as there are in China. The next step is installing facial recognition technology in fixed cameras, something the government is already planning to do. Imagine the potential of such technology if coupled with the Scottish Hate Crime and Public Order Act. 

We need to think carefully now about whether we want to live in a country in which our every move is tracked, and all our behaviour is monitored. We need to look closely at China and other hyper-surveillance countries and decide whether that is the direction we want to go in.

In the meantime, the attempt by the already under-resourced police to cover up their failings by digitalising law and order is clearly something that needs to be taken more seriously than it is. Of course, we all want the police to be able to apprehend criminals — but sacrificing our privacy is a cost that must be weighed against the benefits. Besides, attempting to apprehend criminals after the fact is not as valuable as ensuring that crimes do not take place to begin with. Hyper-surveillance is a sticking plaster pressed across the cracks in our civilisation.

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