London’s Metropolitan Police force is quietly expanding its facial recognition network. The organization is already using Live Facial Recognition (LFR) in public settings, and will soon be supplementing that with a Retrospective Facial Recognition (RFR) system that allows them to search for faces in older images and CCTV feeds being stored in police databases.
Both the LFR and RFR systems come courtesy of NEC. The RFR system could be up and running before the end of the year, and is being deployed as part of a four-year, £3 million deal that was approved by the Mayor’s office at the end of August.
In the meantime, Britain’s privacy advocates have expressed their opposition to the Met’s use of the technology. The Met itself argues that a two-pronged approach to facial recognition will reduce crime in the city. The LFR network scans public places to search for people on watchlists in real time, while the RFR setup allows the police to delve into the past to determine someone’s location at an earlier date, or to identify suspects during an investigation.
However, privacy advocates are worried that both systems could fuel bias, or give the police sweeping abilities to track people’s movements in a manner that infringes on their civil liberties. They also expressed concerns about the lack of accountability. Any police use of RFR technology is ostensibly supposed to be reviewed by an independent London Police Ethics Panel, but the Met’s RFR purchase was approved without any input from that oversight board.
Critics raised additional concerns about the police’s ability to protect the data of British civilians. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) currently does not have any official guidelines for RFR technologies, and stated only that any system must pass a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) before being deployed. That Assessment had not yet been completed as of last month, with a police spokesperson suggesting that the Met was waiting to secure a supplier before moving forward with that process.
For now, the Met insists that its RFR system will implement privacy by design. The problem is that the agency has continued to push for increased surveillance powers despite considerable pushback from the British public, the British government, and even the British courts, which found a Cardiff surveillance program was unlawful. The organization has also deliberately misled the public on at least one occasion, after denying (and then being forced to admit) that it supplied images for a surveillance system at a private development in London.
Six police departments in England and Wales were using RFR technology as of March of 2021.
September 28, 2021 – by Eric Weiss