Are China’s facial recognition trials really the example the Met police want to follow?

Each face is algorithmically cast over with suspicion, checked against the authority’s blacklist”.

Silkie Carlo
10 July 2019, 10.29am
Chinese authorities use facial recognition technology to catch and publicly shame jaywalkers, amongst other things.
Imaginechina/SIPA USA/PA Images

What kind of world do you want to live in? One with privacy or one without? In the current technological revolution, this is an urgent question with a long overdue answer.

New technologies are already transforming the world we live in. Our world is being shaped from above by Silicon Valley’s elite, who provide the surveillance capabilities, and governments, who decide how much they want to surveil us.

One of the most privacy-altering technologies on the horizon is live facial recognition. This software, when added to ordinary-looking public space surveillance cameras, has the capacity to identify thousands of people in real-time and flag to the authorities anyone they choose.

This technological leap means it is now possible for a state like the UK to track the whereabouts of its citizens at all times. It also means it isn’t only our activities that are now monitored, but our bodies. The minute details that make our faces our own, unique to us, are converted into data points to be analysed by an automated watcher. Each face is algorithmically cast over with suspicion, checked against the authority’s blacklist. Should you be here? Are you a criminal? Are you permitted?

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Population-level surveillance might sound fanciful, but in fact it is the status quo. Electronic surveillance of the phone, email and internet use of the UK population is routine. It crept up on us while only the technologists were watching and warning. In 2013, US whistleblower Ed Snowden revealed secret mass spying programmes in the UK including TEMPORA, a bulk data store of all internet traffic; KARMA POLICE, a catalogue including ‘a web browsing profile for every visible user on the internet’; and Black Hole, a repository of over 1 trillion events including internet histories, email and instant messenger records, search engine queries and social media activity.

This makes the face one of the final frontiers of privacy – another layer of monitoring to all but complete the surveillance state. How many other forms of ‘bodily’ surveillance could enable populations to be tracked in real time, other than microchips?

The world we live in has already changed so much, driven by technological advances and unrestrained state power rather than by democratic forces.

Theresa May’s actions went largely unchecked as she rolled out modern mass surveillance, steering the Investigatory Powers Act and its sweeping surveillance powers through parliament on behalf of the intelligence agencies in 2016. Perhaps her roboticism made the Act seem sterile and benign to parliamentarians, because they mostly did a terrible job of challenging her.

Now, we have not even a robot to steer us - all hands are off the wheel. The society-altering decision on whether or not our police forces should be equipped with live facial recognition has been left to the police themselves.

In absence of democratic processes and proper oversight, rapid technological advancements will autopilot us to authoritarianism. If this democratic vacuum continues, we could even risk free-falling into the techno-dystopia China has pioneered.

China is now nearing completion as a fully-fledged, high-tech surveillance state. There are 170 million CCTV cameras across China, with facial recognition activated on a large portion of cameras that watch the cities – and even on police officers’ ‘smart’ sunglasses - tracking millions of citizens in real time. The surveillance enables jaywalkers to be identified to authorities, publicly named and shamed on billboards, and fined. It has also enabled the close surveillance of the Xinjiang province and the mostly Muslim Uighur minority group who reside there, more than a million of whom are now detained in camps or imprisoned, with children sent to re-education centres.

“Spot on,” said the head of the Metropolitan Police Federation Ken Marsh, of China’s mass facial recognition surveillance.

"Although China is a very intrusive country and I don't agree with a lot of what they do," Mr Marsh told the BBC last week, "[on facial recognition] they've got it absolutely correct.”

This chilling endorsement of Chinese mass surveillance, and attempt to separate the authoritarian technology from its authoritarian ends, is misguided and ignorant. This, from one of Britain's most prominent police representatives, serves as a pressing warning against police making policy decisions that affect public freedoms in this country.

Never before have police been given a policy-making role of this magnitude, with such profound implications for citizens’ rights and freedoms. If politicians defer to police on technology and ignore the people, we may find ourselves quivering on the precipice of an accidental police state.

I regretfully predict that effective political leadership will not manifest in the UK any time soon. Our prospective leaders have demonstrated more interest in resuscitating ancient bloodsports than in navigating the technological revolution. But there are greater prospects elsewhere in the democratic world. Even San Francisco, home to Silicon Valley and the beating heart of surveillance capitalism, recently banned police using live facial recognition.

It’s high time the UK follows suit and issues an urgent moratorium on live facial recognition. On this issue, we should follow in the footsteps of San Francisco, not China. That at least will buy us some time to deal with the question – what sort of world do we want to live in now?

Silkie Carlo will be participating in a panel discussion on the realities of facial recognition in the UK at ORGCon 2019, Open Rights Group’s annual conference, this Saturday, 13th July at Friends House, 173-177 Euston Rd, London, NW1 2BJ.

Readers of Open Democracy can get discounted tickets for £10 (reduced from the General Admission price of £25) by using the code: “FlashSale” at the checkout. Tickets are available here. More information on the speakers and the programme are available on the ORGCon website.

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