Cops Spying on Londoners’ Faces Sparks Human Rights Concerns

(Bloomberg) -- Londoners on their morning commute or evening stroll will be scanned as police deploy live facial-recognition cameras around the city, an effort that human-rights groups say is a “dangerous and sinister step.”

The technology will focus on people in specific parts of the city where offenders are most likely to be caught, the Metropolitan Police said Friday. Each system will have its own “watch list” made up of images of criminals wanted for serious and violent offenses.

Facial-recognition is an emerging technology that has been heavily criticized by human-rights groups and regulators for its intrusion on privacy. In 2018, the European Union introduced data protection laws in a bid to crack-down on how citizens’ data is collected and used.

British human-rights group Liberty condemned the decision by police as a “sinister step” which will push the U.K. into a surveillance state. The group called for the ban of the technology in September after losing a legal fight over its use in Wales, branding it a “dystopian technology” that infringes on democracy.

“This is a dangerous, oppressive and completely unjustified move,” Clare Collier, advocacy director at Liberty, said in a statement. “Facial-recognition technology gives the state unprecedented power to track and monitor any one of us, destroying our privacy and our free expression.”

“Rolling out an oppressive mass surveillance tool that has been rejected by democracies and embraced by oppressive regimes is a dangerous and sinister step,” she said.

Facial-recognition and artificial intelligence was a hot topic this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Alphabet Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said it can be used for good, such as finding missing people, but also could have “negative consequences,” such as mass surveillance.

He called for a global framework, similar to the Paris climate accord, to ensure such technology is developed responsibly.

The U.K.’s data regulator, which warned the technology could risk violating privacy laws, said it’s received assurances that the authorities are taking steps to reduce intrusion and comply with data-protection legislation. The system used by in London is made by NEC Corp., the police said.

“This is an important new technology with potentially significant privacy implications for U.K. citizens,” the Information Commissioner’s Office said Friday in a statement. “We reiterate our call for government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice for LFR as a matter of priority.”

The cameras will be signposted and officers will hand out leaflets about the activity at each site, the Met police said. The cameras may also help to locate missing children or vulnerable adults, it said.

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