According to a recent article in The Guardian, the UK government has been secretly backing facial recognition technology to combat shoplifting. The government’s covert strategy, revealed through internal government minutes seen by the Observer, involves putting pressure on the independent privacy regulator to push for the launch of this controversial technology in high street shops and supermarkets.
The use of facial recognition technology raises significant concerns related to bias and data privacy. Critics argue that the technology violates human rights and is biased, particularly against darker-skinned individuals. Despite these concerns, the minutes of the meeting suggest that Home Office officials agreed to defend the merits of facial recognition technology in dealing with “retail crime” by writing a letter to the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO).
This move by the UK government stands in stark contrast to the European Union’s approach. The EU is moving towards banning facial recognition technology in public spaces through its upcoming artificial intelligence law. This reflects growing scrutiny and criticism surrounding facial recognition technology worldwide.
The UK Information and Data Protection Bill proposes abolishing the role of the government-appointed surveillance camera commissioner and eliminating the requirement for a surveillance camera code of practice. In contrast, proponents of biometric surveillance technology installed on retail premises argue that it addresses the growing problem of retail crime. Shoplifting rates in the UK have more than doubled over six years, reaching 8 million cases by 2022.
One company at the center of this controversy is Facewatch, whose facial recognition cameras have provoked fierce opposition after being installed in shops. The founder of Facewatch, Simon Gordon, defends its use as a tool that reduces crime and makes staff safer. However, critics argue that relying on new technologies like facial recognition does not justify potential threats to civil liberties.
The minutes obtained through a freedom of information request indicate that Police Minister Chris Philp discussed “retail crime and benefits” with Facewatch during a closed-door meeting. It remains unclear what contact followed between Home Office officials and the privacy regulator regarding Facewatch. However, it is acknowledged in the minutes that attempting to pressure the independent regulator may be ineffective.
The controversy surrounding facial recognition technology extends beyond retail spaces. It has been used by law enforcement agencies during events such as the Notting Hill Carnival and even during a coronation ceremony. The use of this technology by police forces has faced legal challenges, with appeal court judges ruling that pre-trials of facial recognition technology conducted by South Wales Police were illegal and unethical.
In response to ministerial support for Facewatch, advocacy groups like Big Brother Watch have called for greater protection of human rights and urged the UK to follow the EU’s lead in banning facial recognition technology for surveillance purposes in public spaces.
The climax, the UK government’s covert strategy to back facial recognition technology raises important issues related to bias, data privacy, and civil liberties. While proponents argue that it can help combat retail crime, critics highlight its potential violations of human rights. As debates continue over the use of this technology, it remains crucial to strike a balance between security concerns and protecting individual freedoms.
According to The Guardian article on this topic: “Home Office secretly backs facial recognition technology to curb shoplifting.”