The dystopian possibilities of facial recognition technology
19 February 2020
Unusually for a philosopher, Jeremy Bentham hoped his ideas would be realised in bricks and mortar. His ‘Panoptican’ was a circular, inward-facing jail in which hundreds of inmates could be watched over by a single guard. Where the jailer’s gaze focussed, none would know. As they were in clear view, however, all would regulate their behaviour accordingly.
The Metropolitan Police’s announcement that it plans to start using Live Facial Recognition (LFR) Technology in the capital has clear resonances with Bentham’s 200-year-old vision. Surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence create an all-seeing eye that will allow the Met to scan crowds for suspects – or indeed, anyone else who officers wish to keep tabs on.
The dystopian possibilities of this are easily confected. While the technology has the potential to identify serious criminals, potential terrorists and persons at risk to themselves, LFR can do much else besides. It can pick out the partners of police officers having illicit affairs; identify journalists meeting government whistleblowers; and, create erroneous evidence that an individual was in close proximity of a crime being committed, when, in fact, they were somewhere else entirely.
There are multiple examples of police officers doing all of the above, as previous pieces of technology have become available. On some occasions such abuses have been officially sanctioned, on others it has been the work of rogue officers.
Deploying such powerful technology guided by one’s curiosity, it is perhaps only natural. That is why, if LFR is to be used on Britain’s streets, it requires robust and transparent regulation. It is the complete absence of this, and the rush to utilise cameras in this way, that is this announcement’s most disturbing aspect. Outside the UK, the EU is considering an outright five-year ban.
South Wales Police (SWP) is the force that has most widely trialled LFR in the UK. That force has clearly worked hard on operational transparancy, publishing detailed analysis of LFR deployment and performance. It has also facilitated an independent academic evaluation of its work and published its operations manual.
The detail is fascinating, as well as pointing to the kind of issues that regulation of LFR might encompass. SWP has two LFR vans, whose deployment at specific events is advertised in advance – rugby internationals, pop concerts and Porthcawl’s famous Elvis festival among them.
For each deployment, a specific 'watch list' is drawn up. Generally this comprises people for whom there are outstanding arrest warrants, who have skipped bail or failed to turn up for court hearings. It might also include, however, 'persons of interest to the police'. One would imagine that these are persons wanted for specific, serious, crimes, but the category is undefined.
The watch list is authorised by the deployment’s 'silver commander'. In theory this could be an officer with a rank no higher than constable, but in practice is likely to be far more senior. SWP’s watch lists are not public, but the force does publish an event-by-event tally of the numbers identified and apprehended from the watch lists, plus the numbers of those incorrectly identified.
The technology itself – NEC Neoface – automatically measures facial geometry and compares it to similar measurements for those individuals on the watch list. In most cases the watch list measurements will have been taken when individuals were in police custody – arrestees' 'mug shots'. It is perfectly possible, however, for other photographs to be fed into the system, say, taken from newspapers, social media or cameras operated by police in crowds.
Laudable as much of SWP’s operating procedure is, it won’t be enough to reassure some privacy activists. It certainly angered some Welsh football fans in a recent outing. But what is most disturbing is that it is being done voluntarily. The Met has yet to announce what light it will allow on its LFR deployments. It may match, or exceed SWP’s rigour. It may not.
The regulatory vacuum in which LFR operates has been well advertised. Last summer, the biometrics commissioner Paul Wiles and surveillance camera commissioner Tony Palmer started to make their concerns known. They briefed journalists, gave evidence to legislative committees and met with civil liberties campaigners. The thrust of their intervention was not that LFR had no place in modern policing, but that it, and other 'second generation biometrics', had to be effectively regulated if public support was to be maintained.
The announcement that LFR would be deployed in the capital came from the Met. It is hard to believe, however, that the new government did not at very least approve, and more likely order, the policy change.
By ignoring the warnings of its own commissioners, and many others, the ministers have put law enforcers in an invidious position. The overwhelming majority of police want to serve their communities and build trust with the public. Handed such a potent weapon as LFR, without an effective backdrop of regulation, however, can only lead to incidents that damage the bond between police and policed.
Such a rush to deploy in the early days of a new government is also a disturbing portent, given the raft of decisions that ministers will make in the next few months. The appointment of a new director general for the BBC, the revision of the official secrets act, potential levies on trades unions and the mountain of post-Brexit regulatory reform are all nearly upon us.
Sadly that means the upcoming workload of those who promote liberty, pluralism and tolerance looks set to be heavy. One potential source of comfort, however, can be found in Bentham’s legacy. He lived to see no panopticons built – and they endure only as a metaphor for oppression and totalitarianism. Unregulated, LFR risks a similar fate.
Liberty have launched a petition calling for a ban on facial recognition technology being used by police and private companies in publicly accessible places.
On 27 January in parliament, the use of automated facial recognition surveillance was debated, access and read the transcript online.