The discovery by the Financial Times that facial recognition technology (FRT) has been used in the King’s Cross regeneration area and that the owners of Canary Wharf want to try it out has refuelled long-running concerns about a “surveillance society”, lifted them into a new dimension, and also raised large questions about the nature, freedoms and governance of London’s way of life.
FRT doesn’t only cause concern because it is a new and more intrusive way for people you don’t know to identify and watch you and what you do, but also because it’s not infallible. Moreover, the BBC recently learned that police services have repeatedly failed to test whether the technology is more likely to misidentify black and minority ethnic people, as campaigners have often claimed is the case.
This, of itself, is an obvious worry for a city like London, famed for its ethnic diversity and globalism: it cannot be acceptable for BAME Londoners, workers and visitors to be more likely to be falsely identified and subjected to questioning by security staff and police officers than their white counterparts. The Metropolitan Police are among those who have run FRT trials. The ever-present debate about where and how the proper balance is to be struck between security and liberty has just intensified.
There is also the wider and more amorphous issue of the anonymity London – and other big cities – can provide to those who populate it. For many people, including plenty of its residents, the attractions of London include its being a place of escape into a kind of invisibility, of grateful solitude within the crowd.
The legendary old advert said, “You’re never alone with a Strand”. One of the things about the Strand, and every other busy London thoroughfare not near your home, is that you can always be alone there if you want. Forever, people have embraced London as a kind of social sanctuary, where they can leave unwanted pasts behind and become different, happier kinds of people. Does FRT threaten that part of London’s character in a way that even the proliferation of CCTV hasn’t so far?
Another part of the FRT story is that the local authority for nearly all of the King’s Cross development area, Camden, said it was unaware that the system is in place. Should boroughs be in the know about these things? Should they have powers in relation to them, even if, as is the case with King’s Cross, they are deployed in privately-owned public space? Central St Martin’s college, which is based on the King’s Cross site, told the BBC it had “not been made specifically aware” that FRT is in use there. And has King’s Cross followed all the rules it should have?
The Information Commissioner’s Office told the BBC that it has “general concerns” about the potential for this technology to be misused, is looking into it and will “consider taking action where we find non-compliance with the law”. It will be a surprise if the use of FRT in London, both by the police and private landowners, does not become a more prominent political issue soon.
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