Big Brother watching: British police map citizens with AI technology

Totalitarianism

Published 15 January 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Civil rights groups are sounding the alarm that facial recognition technology can and will be abused.

British police have secretly conducted hundreds of facial recognition searches using the UK’s database of more than 46 million passport holders.

Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch calls the development “deeply worrying” and points out that “there is no clear legal basis for this intrusive technology”.

Last year, policing minister Chris Philip raised the possibility of police accessing the database of British passport holders to use facial recognition technology to identify suspects of crimes including burglary, theft and shoplifting, according to The Telegraph.

In reality, however, the AI technology has been secretly used for this purpose since 2019 or earlier, and the passport database was searched at least 300 times in the first nine months of 2023 alone.

The revelation has led to harsh criticism from several civil liberties groups and MPs, who are concerned about the implications of such searches for data protection and citizens’ privacy. Former cabinet minister David Davis also argues that there is “no explicit legal basis” for the use of facial recognition technology in the UK.

– The data on both the UK passport database and the immigration database was not provided for these purposes,” he said. “For the police to act like this undermines the data relationship between the citizen and the state. At the very least, the House of Commons should be informed precisely who authorised this and who carried it out, Davis comments.

“Risk losing the trust of the public”

Tony Porter, the former CCTV Commissioner, says it is “problematic” that passport holders’ data was sought by the police without their knowledge or consent to be used for such a purpose.

– The other thing that is problematic is that the Government has extolled the importance of transparency. They should be putting this out there about how and why it’s legitimate otherwise they risk losing the trust and confidence of the public, Porter says.

With facial recognition technology, police can use images from sources such as surveillance cameras or cell phones – even those that are blurred or partially obscured – and search for matches in a database of potential suspects.

Use of the technology has increased sharply in recent years, and police forces already conduct thousands of searches each year against the Police National Database, which contains some 16 million images of people who have been arrested, including hundreds of thousands who have never been charged or acquitted of crimes.

Government refuses to back down

In December, it emerged that police would also soon be able to search a database of Britain’s 50 million driving license holders under a new law making its way through Parliament.

Madeleine Stone, of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, calls the expansion of AI surveillance “deeply worrying” and says there is “no clear legal basis for this invasive technology”.

But the UK government is standing firm, saying “the Government is committed to making sure the police have the tools and technology they need to solve and prevent crimes, bring offenders to justice, and keep people safe”.

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