London Metropolitan Police now considering pausing facial recognition expansion
Following several months of growing concerns among privacy rights advocates and an independent report commissioned by London’s Metropolitan Police that four out of five matches returned by its facial recognition (LFR) technology are false positives, the Met announced it may put on hold expansion of its facial recognition program because so many Londoners are wearing face masks due to the social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Met Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave said the cameras were “vital in assisting us in bearing down on violence,” but noted that cameras would not be used “to search speculatively or indiscriminately.”
A Scotland Yard spokeswoman told the Standard, “We are looking at any potential issues to establish how it may impact on future LFR deployments.”
The Met’s already controversial LFR program, which began in January as part of its efforts to make use of the city’s thousands of cameras to identify violent and wanted criminals, has been under mounting criticism by civil rights advocates and even some city officials.
London Assembly members Caroline Pidgeon and Sian Berry recently wrote to Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick requesting that she stop the Met’s use of LFR until concerns about its reliability, and the Met’s acknowledged problems using it while so many residents are wearing masks, have been adequately addressed.
Numerous Ministers of Parliament have also one on the record criticizing the Met’s use of the technology without having what they’ve said are essential legal safeguards in place. They and other critics also have demanded to know the Metropolitan Police’s criteria for developing “watch lists” of specific individuals
The Met had announced that cameras would be used “at key locations in Westminster” and that, “This technology helps keep Londoners safe. We are using it to find people who are wanted for violent and other serious crimes,” saying “watch lists” were being developed to monitor for persons suspected of serious violence, gun, and knife crime and child sex abuse.
“We now face the situation that for many months ahead the wearing of masks, scarves and face coverings will be common place in public places in London. Even the staunchest advocates of facial recognition technology must surely accept that this is not the right time to be rolling out the use of this technology,” Pidgeon told reporters.
Scotland Yard began using facial recognition at Oxford Circus in late February, and trials were conducted at locations including the Westfield shopping center in Stratford and London’s West End. Operational use of LFR was initiated in early February at the Stratford Center.
Big Brother Watch privacy rights advocate Director Silkie Carlo said, “It’s alarming to see biometric mass surveillance being rolled out in London. Never before have citizens been subjected to identity checks without suspicion, let alone on a mass scale,” adding, “We’re appalled that London Mayor Sadiq Khan has approved such useless, dangerous and authoritarian surveillance technology for London. This undemocratic expansion of the surveillance state must be reversed.”
A spokesperson for the mayor said The Met had met all the conditions put forth in a report on proper use of LFR by an independent panel.
“New technology has a role in keeping Londoners safe, but it’s equally important that the Met Police are proportionate in the way it is deployed and are transparent about where and when it is used in order to retain the trust of all Londoners,” the unnamed spokesperson said in a statement. “City Hall and the ethics panel will continue to monitor the use of facial recognition technology as part of their role in holding the Met to account.”
While The Met asserts its facial recognition technology has demonstrated only one false recognition out of 1,000, the University of Essex said the LFR used by The Met actually only managed eight accurate matches out of 42 from the six trials that it assessed.
The Met’s “senior technologist” Johanna Morley told reporters the false alert rate has been 0.1 percent.
“This is an important development for The Met, and one which is vital in assisting us in bearing down on violence. As a modern police force, I believe that we have a duty to use new technologies to keep people safe in London,” Ephgrave said in a statement, adding, “We are using a tried-and-tested technology, and have taken a considered and transparent approach in order to arrive at this point.”
The Met has been forced to reexamine the reliability of its facial recognition program in light of the fact so many Londoners are wearing face masks and other facial coverings, however, which authorities and experts say makes it nearly impossible to identify anyone the police may be applying the technology to look for, and will likely have to pause its use at least temporarily.
The Met though has yet to make a definitive announcement on how it will proceed for the time being.