Transparency for public-private biometric deals? Not in the UK, at least

Transparency for public-private biometric deals? Not in the UK, at least

If every biometrics-gathering partnership between government and businesses was fully transparent, the idea of never ending, large scale facial recognition programs would be that much less unnerving to some.

But transparency in this case is rarely more than a talking point for vendors and government leaders. That is, when public discussion about siting and operating systems has occurred at all.

A private UK watchdog group monitoring the use of face biometrics in the nation alleges that the Metropolitan Police in London may have had unannounced discussions with a private biometric surveillance startup about sharing data.

UK-based Facewatch Ltd.‘s cloud-based software and hardware system (including cameras placed in businesses) compares live images of the region around customers ‘ eyes against a list of the images of people who might be linked to crimes.

The database of images is primarily Facewatch’s, but business owners can add images of undesired consumers that they have captured. The contributed images are shared with other subscribers in the area nearby.

If a match is found, a real-time alert is sent to the company, where actions can be taken. The operation remains between Facewatch and its subscribers.

However, Facewatch has created a contract to be signed by governments giving police access to the live footage to make matches of their own. No alerts would be sent to Facewatch business subscribers.

The contract carries the following designation on each page: “Based originally on Met Police Template Version 4.0.” It appears the contract was last updated in February 2019.

Privacy International, the UK watchdog, says if Facewatch can sign on police agencies, it would amount to a “radical extension of the police’s surveillance powers.” It would further erode due process rights, according to the group.

The organization claims it tried to start a conversation with Facewatch, but has received no response. The Met Police reportedly told Privacy International that it had no data sharing or similar agreements with Facewatch between January 1, 2015 and May 10, 2019.

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