Face masks prompt London police to consider pause in rollout of facial recognition cameras

The controversial scheme may be halted due to the widespread adoption of face coverings.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The rollout of facial recognition cameras in London is facing disruption as citizens are now using face coverings that could potentially incapacitate the technology.

The United Kingdom has been a keen adopter of surveillance technology including facial recognition cameras in recent years, despite concerns that widespread spying erodes citizen rights to privacy. 

Last year, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) launched an investigation into a trial of facial recognition cameras installed at King's Cross, a busy underground and overground train station, based on claims that commuters and passers-by were being surveilled without explicit consent. 

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At the time, UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham called the scheme "a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all."

The Metropolitan Police has also launched its own trials at busy hotspots in the capital. Live facial recognition (LFR) technology, having been deployed across London since January, is intended to scan faces and flag up matches of most-wanted individuals and criminals. 

However, civil rights campaigners say that there is no clear legal basis for scanning the faces of potentially millions of citizens in the hope of catching a few people, and there are also fears such a rollout could contribute to a shift towards a surveillance state model adopted in countries such as China. 

Research conducted by Big Brother Watch suggests the cameras have false-positive rates of up to 90% and the civil rights group also claims that thousands of people have already been misidentified by facial recognition cameras. 

In two recent LFR deployments, in which over 13,000 faces were scanned, six individuals were stopped -- and five of the six were misidentified. 

A number of MPs, too, have urged for facial recognition camera rollouts to stop until the UK has laws restraining the technology's use.

None of these issues have stopped the Met, but it seems a pandemic may do so. 

The police force is reportedly considering a pause on the scheme as so many in the capital are now wearing face masks. The UK government has urged citizens that need to use public transport -- including crucial tube, bus, and train networks in London -- to wear face coverings to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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It is likely that wearing scarves, masks, and other coverings to cover mouths and noses will be a common sight in the foreseeable future, and so cameras designed to scan and flag our faces may not be effective. 

When asked about this issue, a Scotland Yard spokeswoman told The Evening Standard, "We are looking at any potential issues to establish how it may impact on future LFR deployments."

A letter (.PDF) recently penned by Assembly Members (AMs) Caroline Pidgeon and Sian Berry to Dame Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, has questioned the rollout of LFR, calling the cameras "unreliable, unregulated and being used in a way which infringes on the civil liberties of Londoners."

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Pidgeon and Berry have called for a halt to the use of LFR until a number of concerns have been addressed; including how the police compile 'watch lists' of suspects, a lack of assurance that the technology will not be used to at protests, demonstrations, or public events, and the potential impact using cameras will have on the general public's level of trust in law enforcement. 

"In addition to inaccuracy, we are also concerned that no laws, regulations or debate have been concluded consenting to the use of LFR by parliament, and that therefore this technology has no national guidelines or regulations governing its use," the letter reads. "We both believe that the way in which LFR is being rolled out as an operational tool in London is ill-advised, and that this technology will have a chilling effect on civil liberties if it is not used with clarity, accountability and with full democratic consent."

Police in the UK have also been recently criticized for using drones to publicly shame dog walkers during the novel coronavirus outbreak. 

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