UK Home Office accused of lobbying for Facewatch: report
Troubles continue for biometric security company Facewatch, known for deploying facial recognition surveillance in retail stores across the UK.
New internal government emails reveal that senior officials at the Home Office communicated to the country’s data privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), that the policing minister Chris Philp would write to the commissioner if the regulator’s investigation into Facewatch was not positive towards the firm.
“If you are about to do something imminently in Facewatch’s favor then I should be able to head that off [Philp’s intervention], otherwise we will just have to let it take its course,” the email says.
UK-based non-governmental organization Big Brother Watch argues that the correspondence from Philp to Facewatch portrays the policing chief more as a lobbyist for the facial recognition firm than a government official.
“This disclosure is utterly damning and appears to show that Chris Philp intervened in the data regulator’s investigation of a private facial recognition company he was having meetings with,” says Mark Johnson, advocacy manager at Big Brother Watch.
The email dates from March and was sent after a closed-door meeting between Philp, senior Home Office officials and Facewatch Founder Simon Gordon. During the meeting, the UK Home Office agreed to advocate rolling out facial recognition in high street stores and supermarkets, media revealed in July.
The news comes amid a backlash against Facewatch over its facial recognition cameras which are deployed across nearly 400 shops in the country. The criticism has come both from civil rights groups and members of the British Parliament.
In March 2023, the Information Commissioner’s Office concluded that Facewatch’s system was permissible under law but also found that the company’s policies had breached data protection legislation on eight points.
The heavily redacted email, published by The Observer, also reveals that the UK’s policing chief has been supporting the use of facial recognition in combating retail crime.
The Information Commissioner’s Office denied that the Home Office had influence on its investigation into Facewatch. The Home Office said Philp had not attempted to influence the regulator.
Privacy organizations, however, remain skeptical of the claims.
“It raises serious questions as to whether Philp and his officials influenced the regulator’s notable leniency towards the company,” says Big Brother Watch’s Mark Johnson. ”Indeed, data regulators operating under the same law in other European countries have issued multi-million-pound fines over live facial recognition being used to spy on shoppers, whilst Facewatch got off scot-free in the UK.”