Jamie Bartlett

The Met Police’s sinister facial recognition trial should worry us all

The Met Police's sinister facial recognition trial should worry us all
Text settings

We are extremely good at accusing others of doing the very thing we excel at. A case in point: we rightly criticise the Chinese government with its dystopian surveillance and social score systems, when we are considering building something similar.

In a recent episode of BBC Click, journalist Geoff White followed the police’s pilot of live facial recognition technology. (The Metropolitan Police are running a number of pilots). In one chilling moment, a man walked past the facial recognition cameras and covered his face. The police stopped him, forced him to uncover and then took a photograph of him anyway. ‘This gives us grounds to stop and verify him,’ one officer said. The man got angry – understandably, I’d have done the same – which landed him a £90 fine for disorderly behaviour.

I’ve no idea what the legal basis is for any of this – but if covering your face is deemed suspicious, we’re heading somewhere where, for once, the word ‘Orwellian’ isn’t an exaggeration. Silkie Carlo from Big Brother Watch (who are running a campaign to stop this) reckons it’s a ‘free for all’ taking place in a legal vacuum. ‘The police are making up the rules as they go along,’ she says.

I won’t bother running through the possible misuses, bias data models (see here if you don’t believe that technology can’t contain biases), or the cost. Instead, just imagine real-time facial recognition technology running on the country’s six million CCTV cameras and ask yourself if you’re happy with that. And if it does roll out, I suspect thousands will do what this man did, principled or otherwise, which will surely make an ass of the law.

But what worries me most is not that facial recognition technologies won’t work – but the opposite. Despite the problems, I expect it will be very effective at tackling crime and keeping us safe. At what cost?

The UK government have no intention of mimicking the Chinese Communist Party. But what might happen if, in twenty years, we elected a government that would? Once you build infrastructure and establish new policing powers, they are very rarely removed, and usually only ratchet up. The road to our techno-hell will almost certainly be paved with innocent sounding ‘pilots’ and pieties about keeping the public safe.