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Facial Recognition in London Causes More Controversy

Written by  Sep 06, 2019

The use of facial recognition technology in public central London area is continuing to stir controversy with an admission this week that the Metropolitan Police Service shared images with a developer as a part of a trial run of a surveillance system.

London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, says that the city's police service shared images with the developer of the whole of the King's Cross area. The partnership between law enforcement and the developer, King's Cross Central Limited Partnership, ended in March 2018, the mayor says. But police officials originally claimed they were not involved in this pilot program.

"As a matter of urgency, I have asked for a report from the [Metropolitan Police Service] on this concerning development and on their wider data-sharing arrangements, including what information has been shared and with whom," Khan says.

Face Recognition Technology

A Crime Prevention Measure

Argent, the developer behind the King's Cross Central Limited Partnership, had been using facial recognition technology in the neighbourhood's CCTV system to scan pedestrians near the King's Cross railway station as part of a crime prevention effort, according to the Guardian.

While much of the King's Cross development is privately owned, most of it is open to the public. Many city residents, as well as privacy advocates, say the use of facial recognition technology without the public's knowledge is an invasion of privacy (see: Use of Facial Recognition Stirs Controversy).

The U.K. Information Commissioner's Office - Britain's chief privacy watchdog - has launched an investigation into the developer's use of facial recognition technology. The ICO has the ability to suggest privacy violation fines under the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation.

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Facial Recognition in Use

The controversy over the use of facial recognition technology started in August, when several media reports surfaced that showed the developer of the King's Cross property had used the technology.

The issue then resurfaced this week when London's mayor disclosed the involvement of the Metropolitan Police force.

A spokesperson for Argent issued a statement earlier this week saying that only two facial recognition technology cameras, which the company claims only covered a single location at King's Boulevard, were operational between May 2016 and March 2018. Since then, the company has stopped using the technology in that area.

The statement also notes that during that time, data processed through the facial recognition technology system was regularly deleted, with the final removal of personal data taking place in March 2018.

"The [facial recognition technology] system was never used for marketing or other commercial purposes. The system was used only to help the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police prevent and detect crime in the neighborhood and ultimately to help ensure public safety," according to the statement.

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Previously, the BBC reported that the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police both denied any involvement with the developer's use facial recognition technology during the pilot program. That changed this week with the acknowledgement that the Metropolitan Police gave images to the developer as part of the test run.

By 15th August, however, the IOC had launched an investigation into the use of the technology, according to the BBC and other media reports. The ICO investigation is continuing and the developer says the company is cooperating, according to the statement.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports this week that Britain's surveillance camera commissioner, who oversees the use of surveillance cameras within the country, is also investigating the use of facial recognition technology within King's Cross.

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Seeking Clarification

Last month, Robert Evans, a partner at Argent, tried to clarify how the technology was being used.

In a letter to the mayor's office, Evans wrote that the facial recognition system tied to the CCTV system wass designed to run in the background, looking for matches against a small number of so-called "flagged" individuals. This could be, for example, a person who may have committed a crime or a missing person, according to the BBC.

Evans' letter also noted that faces were automatically blurred out when the footage was played back or captured. The system only stored the images of flagged individuals, state the BBC.

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