Over the past few months, high-profile incidents in the United Kingdom, one of the most surveilled societies in the world, forced people to consider how facial recognition will be used there. Brexit taking up most of the oxygen in the room hasn’t made that debate any easier, but in conversations with VentureBeat, three experts from different backgrounds — Ada Lovelace Institute director Carly Kind, the U.K.’s surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter, and University of Essex professor Daragh Murray, who studies police use of facial recognition — all agree that the U.K. needs to find a middle ground.

All three agree that years of Brexit debate have stifled necessary reform, and that leaving the European Union could carry consequences for years to come as police and businesses continue experiments with facial recognition in the U.K. They also worry that an inability to take action could lead to calls for a ban or overregulation, or far more dystopian scenarios of facial recognition everywhere.

Facial recognition’s global proliferation

The Terminator’s got serious competition for symbolizing the fear of technology trampling human rights. Facial recognition has become a major issue around the globe due both to its deeply personal and pervasive nature as well as advances in AI that now make it work in real time.

In democratic societies worldwide, facial recognition is challenging lawmakers to confront how AI will shape society and is redefining attitudes toward artificial intelligence. Its use in Hong Kong to identify protestors and in western China to find Uighur Muslims inflames dystopian fear of surveillance that cannot be avoided without hiding your face from the world.

Lately, a ban on masks in Hong Kong, and the requirement that internet and smartphone users perform facial recognition scans, keeps China in the news.

Cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai have more surveillance cameras per capita than he any other cities in the world today, but next on that list is London. Analysis by Comparitech in August found that London has the highest number of surveillance cameras of any city outside of China. According to estimates by Big Brother Watch, Britain has the second most surveillance cameras per capita of any country in the world.

Use of AI-powered surveillance technology is on the rise around the world, according to a recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, and it’s likely to grow with initiatives like Huawei’s Smart Cities program for 5G being exported to countries around the world, as well as facial recognition databases being considered in countries like France and India.

Facial recognition trials in a Swedish school and in a Berlin train station, as well as plans to create a national ID in France, have all made the news this year, but the size of the U.K. surveillance camera network makes it ground zero for the facial recognition debate.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 16: People walk past a CCTV camera in Pancras Square near Kings Cross Station on August 16, 2019 in London, England. CCTV cameras using facial-recognition systems at King's Cross are to be investigated by the UK's data-protection watchdog after a report by the Financial Times. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Above: People walk past a CCTV camera in Pancras Square near Kings Cross Station on August 16, 2019 in London, England. CCTV cameras using facial-recognition systems at King’s Cross are to be investigated by the UK’s data-protection watchdog after a report by the Financial Times.

Image Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In recent months we’ve learned more about high-profile deployments by police in South Wales and London, at King’s Cross train station in London, and even in job interviews.

But although more live facial recognition deployments happen in the U.K., Britain’s been busy with Brexit, trying to avoid, delay, or carry out plans to leave the European Union. Still on the table is a no-deal Brexit, a scenario with cascading, unforeseen consequences.

Exactly what’s going to happen in the U.K. as a result of Brexit fallout still seems unclear even to the most well-informed people, but to get an idea of how it’s affected debates over facial recognition and could continue to do so, three of those people shared their perspectives and pontifications about facial recognition in the United Kingdom.

Carly Kind and Europe’s potential “third way”

Carly Kind is director of the Ada Lovelace Institute. Named for the creator of the first algorithm, the Ada Lovelace Institute began about a year ago with support from the Alan Turing Institute; The Royal Society; The British Academy; and techUK, an organization that represents the tech industry in the U.K. The institute intentionally receives no funding from tech giants.

“In AI ethics conversations, if you follow the money trail you find Google and Facebook money in much of the ethics community, so we think it’s quite important to be independent from private sector funding,” Kind said.

As the first major initiative of the organization, which was built to marry research with policy, the Ada Lovelace Institute chose to focus on facial recognition technology in the U.K.

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Last month, the Institute released what’s thought to be the first survey to measure British attitudes toward facial recognition software. In it, a majority of about 4,100 U.K. adults surveyed said they want the government to place restrictions on police use of the technology, but nearly 50% support its use by police if safeguards are in place.

Conversely, 50% support a voluntary moratorium of use by police, and 70% support a voluntary moratorium at schools.

A Pew Research poll also released in early September found that a narrow majority of U.S. adults (56%) trust police to use facial recognition, while far fewer trust tech companies (36%) or advertisers (18%).

In a Financial Times op-ed published a short time later, Kind called for a facial recognition moratorium to avoid “sleepwalking into widespread deployment of facial recognition” without stopping to take time to think about how the technology will affect legal and societal relationships, and the kinds of protections that need to be put in place first.

“The other [reason] is I think we want to avoid reactionary bans of these new technologies born out of fear. Our survey about attitudes towards facial recognition show that people do want this technology to be used in places where there’s a clear benefit in terms of public safety and where there are safeguards in place, so I don’t think the public wants bans on the technology any more than the private sector wants bans on the technology, and yet we’ve seen that has been an approach by some, like in San Francisco,” she said.

In the U.S., the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors passed a ban of facial recognition technology in May, followed by Somerville, Massachusetts and Oakland, California in June and July, respectively.

In the U.K., members of Parliament called for a moratorium in July, but Kind is proposing instead a voluntary delay by tech companies, akin to the kind British insurance agencies put in place for genetic testing in the 1990s.

The U.K. has played a role in legitimizing surveillance technologies in the past, Kind said.

“We have quite an important legitimizing impact in other countries, and that’s why it’s very important to get it right here, I would argue. And that’s not necessarily to say the U.K. is explicitly trying to be a world leader in facial recognition — that’s not the point,” Kind said. “The point is that I think it’s almost as if the U.K. has become a testing ground. If it becomes widespread here, then other countries might follow suit. And if it does become widespread here, then we need to make sure it’s done properly the first time around.”

Any such regulation is likely to amend the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 or Protections of Freedom Act of 2012, laws that define proper use by the state, or the Data Protection Act, which controls use by private vendors.

However, Kind laments that lawmakers have made little progress to put legal frameworks in place due to a need to address Brexit and its potential fallout.

“There’s not been really any legislative progress in the U.K. for the last three years on anything that isn’t Brexit,” she said. “I think there’s a strong likelihood Brexit has paralyzed the ability of the legislature to keep up with technology, which is already not the thing it’s best at doing.”

In addition to continuing talks to negotiate a voluntary moratorium, the Ada Lovelace Institute will push for overarching legislation to regulate not just public and private sector use, but other emerging surveillance technology, as well.

As the U.K. begins to prepare for an October 31 exit from the European Union or request an extension, the European Commission is reportedly planning to introduce facial recognition regulation that could grant EU citizens rights over their facial recognition data and the right to know when facial recognition is being used.

The development essentially means a no-deal Brexit could end with the U.K. no longer following GDPR privacy law or facial recognition regulation to come, and as a result inadvertently fall behind Europe, Kind said.

Lawmakers in the U.S. are also reportedly planning to introduce bipartisan facial recognition legislation, Vox reported in August.

Despite the hard-to-predict outcome, Kind still believes that the U.K. can join the EU in defining a third way for AI, by crafting an AI ecosystem and vision of how the technology can change lives that’s different from the generally more corporate approach taken in the United States and the state-driven approach in China.

“I think there’s a strong argument for that being the EU’s unique value-add to the AI sector,” Kind said. ”I think the challenge will be to see how from an industry perspective and from a research perspective there’s appetite there to pursue that. Certainly that’s what we’ll be advocating for.

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“I think there’s a really strong argument that for long-term, sustainable success of AI, we should take this approach, and I think the people that we need to convince are those building the technology and procuring the technology and selling it as well, and that means really bringing the private sector to the table.”

Tony Porter and police compliance with surveillance law

Tony Porter is the U.K.’s surveillance camera commissioner, a position created five years ago by parliament after the government recognized the ubiquitous nature of surveillance in the U.K.

The unique title and role requires him to wear many hats.

Porter, who sits on the Home Office’s biometrics advisory board, advises government ministers and local police and national law enforcement units on how to remain compliant with national legal guidelines, as well as courts and privacy bodies within the European Union.

But his main job is to ensure police and government agencies comply with a set of 12 principles laid out in the surveillance camera code of practice, such as the need for clear rules and policies for surveillance camera use, the need to “safeguard against unauthorized access and use,” and setting policies and procedures before surveillance camera systems are installed. The principles derive their power in part from the U.K.’s Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Non-compliance with the stated goals can be brought to court so a judge can decide if such footage can be used as evidence. That can have serious consequences, because the vast majority of homicide trials in the U.K. use CCTV footage as evidence, Porter said.

Facial recognition technology in use in Leicester Square in London.

Above: Facial recognition technology in use in Leicester Square in London.

Image Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

Porter was unable to verify claims that the U.K. has the second largest number of surveillance cameras per capita in the world, but he pointed to a 2013 estimate that the U.K. has roughly 5 million surveillance cameras, a number that’s likely grown significantly with the proliferation of body cameras, drones, video doorbells, and cameras on vehicles.

“The U.K. doesn’t have the same sensitivities to that kind of crime prevention than certainly other European countries have. Many academics and social commentators have put [that] down to the fact that in the UK, we’ve never been under the boot of a fascist dictatorship. The notion of surveillance to protect the community, as opposed to invading on its privacy, is more easily tolerated,” he said.

Following a recent ruling by South Wales courts that found police use of facial recognition to be legal, Porter expects more law enforcement agencies in the U.K. to reassess their position and potentially begin their own trials.

Porter expects the proliferation of facial recognition technology to make his job more difficult as “more bespoke or unique incidents of its use” come into play, its legitimacy is challenged, and more resources are called upon to provide advice. But he cautions against hyperbole, because, he says, law enforcement agencies tend to be responsive when told they aren’t complying with the 12 principles.

“There are those people who step forward and scream from the rooftops that this is a chilling technology, [that] all is lost and the sky is falling, when actually you’ve got police services that are on their own volition saying ‘No, this isn’t right’ and stop. And the question I’d ask is would that happen in China, or would that happen in an oppressive state? No, it wouldn’t,” he said. “What the public are calling for is a very clear regime of oversight in government so that they have assurance that you haven’t got private retail running off with watch lists and doing what they want with it.”

Porter is also advising lawmakers to toughen oversight and pass or reform law to incorporate surveillance technology in general, not just facial recognition, because AI is evolving to be able to read people’s lips or identify them based on the way they walk, technology with the potential of being equally invasive.

Brexit has become an obstacle for Home Office officials as well as the wider government, but that doesn’t mean things have been at a total standstill.

“We’ve seen the requirement to have CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses passed last year, and whilst that’s important, and protecting pigs and animals is important, what I’ve been arguing for is the greater protection of humans, and I have called upon government to attend to this and ensure that the public is satisfied that the regulation is tight. We’re not there yet, but I’m confident that [if we] continue to support and advise ministers we will move towards having a code of practice that can manage these issues effectively,” Porter said.

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Citing recent moratoriums in Morocco and California, Porter called it an exciting time for policymakers in search of governance of surveillance technology and debate, but again warned against debate being driven by fear of dystopia.

“I suppose my single clarion call would be let that be an intelligent, healthy debate, not drowned out by a shrill shriek of ‘this is an invasion of privacy,’ because properly managed, with proper oversight that reassures the public, then it could be argued that there could be some significant good that comes out of its use,” he said. “But it has to be controlled.”

Daragh Murray: Technology has to serve society

This summer, University of Essex professors Peter Fussey and Daragh Murray released what’s thought to be the first independent review of police live facial recognition use in the U.K.

The analysis, which looked at Metropolitan Police facial recognition trials in London that ended in February, found that systems deployed by police were inaccurate more than 80% of the time when identifying 43 suspects on the streets of London.

The analysis also found what Murray described as a “presumption to intervene.”

“That idea, I guess, the role of human intervention, or human input in the decision-making process, wasn’t really effective,” Murray said.

The other problem with the trial was the violation of the human rights of potentially thousands of other people subjected to biometric processing, Murray said.

Similar criticism has been lobbed at the FBI in the U.S. for using driver’s license databases from state DMVs to fuel its facial recognition search program.

Earlier this year, members of Congress criticized the FBI for years of ignoring Government Accountability Office demands to strengthen privacy protections and perform annual performance audits.

Murray thinks one potential outcome from Brexit could be that U.K. policy drifts closer to the corporate-driven approach in the United States and further from a more privacy-conscious EU approach.

People stop to look at a board detailing Facial recognition software in use in Leicester Square in London.

Above: People stop to look at a board detailing Facial recognition software in use in Leicester Square in London.

Image Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

Though Murray is primarily concerned with the human rights implications of facial recognition software, like Kind and Porter, he believes in finding a middle ground between appropriate public use and the formation of a police state.

He supports Porter’s work but thinks a judge should also be involved in the process to act as a kind of “double lock.” A judge could act as an independent arbiter in the process who can evaluate the need for facial recognition use and can rule against police rationale that a specific incident merits use of the technology police.

Taking this kind of privacy-conscious approach could lead to different kinds of attitudes toward facial recognition than the kind being seen in the United States and China that are less thoughtful about human rights.

“I think we would agree that […] a third way or something like that would be appropriate, really, because technology has incredible potential to really transform society for the better. But it’s also subject to such potential abuse even without any intention,” he said. “Moving away from the China and the Uighur examples, even with intentional authoritarian abuse, the increased use of AI in decision-making really significantly increases state surveillance capacity and analytical capacity and alters how society works.”

“Technology has to serve society. That has to be the bottom line. It shouldn’t be about technology for technology’s sake,” Murray said.


The distinct difference between facial recognition technology as it was known 10 years ago and what’s available today is that you can do more than search a database for a match. Assisted by recent advances in computer vision and existing networks of surveillance cameras, today facial recognition can identify a person in real time at a mall or protest, then follow that person home. Its potential for stifling political protest and the right to privacy is why the EU’s high-level AI expert group warned against its proliferation.

Just as Brexit is being settled in the present with no rule book, exactly how facial recognition technology is reined in or let loose in the United Kingdom is a story being written now. Brexit is an undeniably sloppy mess that after years of fighting and percolating may be in its last throes, but how the U.K. treats facial recognition will be undeniably important and could influence how other nations around the world forming policy for its use or put safeguards in place to protect people.

But as Kind, Porter, and Murray assert and the Ada Lovelace Institute survey alludes to, there’s a gray area for the U.K. to interrogate between overregulation and lack of regulation. That process may have been stifled by Brexit and could be impacted by the final result of Brexit, but experts agree the path forward in the U.K. should lead to facial recognition management, not banishment.



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