Privacy SOS

UK Surveillance Commissioner: face recognition HD cameras could violate human rights law

United Kingdom police are getting ready to roll-out an upgrade to the country's advanced surveillance camera system, to include face recognition "capable of identifying and tracking a person's face from half a mile away," writes The Independent. 

The UK's first Surveillance Commissioner, Andrew Rennison, told the Independent that pervasive monitoring paired with advanced identification tools like face recognition could be a violation of human rights law to which the nation is a signatory, specifically "Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which seeks to protect "private and family life"."

Mr. Rennison described the technology in the context of the lack of democratic participation in decision-making regarding surveillance acquisitions and deployment, a problem that is reaching crisis proportions here in the United States:

The rapid advancement of digital technology means that 16-megapixel HD cameras are now very affordable, so people are buying a camera with a huge optical and digital zoom power.
A tiny camera in a dome with a 360-degree view can capture your face in the crowd, and there are now the algorithms that run in the background. I've seen the test reviews that show there's a high success rate of picking out your face against a database of known faces.
I'd like the lawyers to help work our way through that and decide whether we remain Article 8 compliant in this country…I don't want the state to carry on and start pushing the boundaries. Let's have a debate – if the public support it, then fine. If the public don't support it, and we need to increase the regulation, then that's what we need to do.
The biometric technology … has to be regulated to forensic standards – facial recognition, facial comparison, gait analysis – because that is a whole new area in forensic science.

We are facing the exact same problems here in the United States, but here no government minister has been appointed to study these vital issues. Instead, independent groups like the EFF and the ACLU bear the burden of investigating the rapid expansion of the domestic security state, including publicizing details about the FBI's latest biometrics endeavors, which are centered around the so-called "Biometrics Center of Excellence" and the Next Generation Identification database.

Plenty of US government money is funding research to accelerate the integration of identification and monitoring tools. A recent paper published by researchers at George Mason University on the development of surveillance camera systems that can scan crowds, segregate faces, run each face image against a database, and then identify matches on "watch lists" demonstrates that the dystopian world of zero anonymity depicted in the film Minority Report is not far off. 

The UK Surveillance Commissioner's appeals to public process and open debate couldn't be more relevant for us here in the United States, where opaque federal grant streams have for ten years been quietly (and unaccountably) funding a revolution in local policing, bestowing advanced surveillance and identification tools upon local police departments without so much as a whisper of public participation.

Governments do not give up powers easily. If we want to live in a society in which we can retain some privacy and anonymity our best bet is to stop the roll out of advanced analytic HD surveillance cameras with back end face recognition technology before the tools are already in place.

Is it too late? Various departments nationwide are beginning to acquire face recognition ready databases, a necessary first step. But we don't know what the government is planning to do. That's a tragedy.

The government shouldn't be so secretive and shady about its surveillance acquisitions. After all, if we really need these technologies, officials should be able to articulate why and convince the majority of US Americans that this is the right idea. 

Maybe they don't want to have that conversation because they know that most people don't want to be tracked and monitored everywhere they go. Imagine that.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.