Privacy group Big Brother Watch (BBW) has warned that the use of facial recognition technology across public spaces is becoming more widespread.

It was revealed recently that hundreds of thousands of visitors to the King’s Cross area of London were being covertly scanned.

Public spaces including museums and shopping centres are rife with the technology and that increasingly, private companies were installing cameras, according to BBW.

Facial recognition is a biometric technology that uses distinguishable facial features to identify a person.

The high-tech systems analyse the visual data and millions of images and videos created by high-quality Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras installed in our cities for security, smartphones, social media, and other online activity.

However, facial recognition is not governed by a specific legal framework in the UK at present, meaning that private companies can use it without declaring the move publicly or notifying authorities.

Shopping centres

The technology has been trialled by owners of Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre, the World Museum in Liverpool and the Millennium Point conference centre in Birmingham.

Last month, MPs said the lack of legislation calls into question the legal basis of the trials.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said authorities should cease trials of facial recognition technology until a legal framework is established.

Surveillance camera commissioner, Tony Porter investigated the live facial recognition used by the Trafford Centre in Manchester last year. The centre was finally pressurised into stopping using the technology after six months of monitoring visitors.

According to The Independent Silkie Carlo, director Big Brother Watch, “There is an epidemic of facial recognition in the UK.

“The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing.

“Facial recognition is the perfect tool of oppression and the widespread use we’ve found indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency.”

Ms Carlo added: “Parliament must follow in the footsteps of legislators in the US and urgently ban this authoritarian surveillance from public spaces.”  She said millions of people will have been scanned by facial-recognition cameras without realising.

The ICO

The Information Commissioner is currently looking at potential privacy and data law breaches by two police forces over the use of live facial recognition and is under judicial review.

The information commissioner launched a probe into the use of facial recognition on the King’s Cross.

 “Scanning people’s faces as they lawfully go about their daily lives, in order to identify them, is a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all,” said Elizabeth Denham

“That is especially the case if it is done without people’s knowledge or understanding.

“I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector.

“My office and the judiciary are both independently considering the legal issues and whether the current framework has kept pace with emerging technologies and people’s expectations about how their most sensitive personal data is used.”

A spokesperson for British Land, which owns Meadowhall, said it does not currently operate facial recognition technology on any of its sites.

“However, over a year ago we conducted a short trial at Meadowhall, in conjunction with the police, and all data was deleted immediately after the trial.”

National Museums Liverpool, which operates the World Museum, told BBW that it was “testing feasibility of using similar technology in the future “.

But in a statement, the museum operator said facial recognition had only been used temporarily during a 2018 exhibition.

A spokesman said: “National Museums Liverpool uses CCTV within its venues for detection and prevention of crime.”

“The organisation used facial recognition technology at World Museum when there was a heightened security risk during the in 2018. This was put in place after seeking advice from Merseyside Police and local counterterrorism advisers and was clearly communicated in signage around the venue. World Museum did not receive any complaints and it is no longer in use.

“Any use of similar technology in the future would be in accordance with National Museums Liverpool’s standard operating procedures and with good practice guidance issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

Law enforcement

A privacy notice published online by owners of the Millennium Point conference centre in Birmingham said they “sometimes use facial recognition software at the request of law enforcement authorities.

“This facial recognition software will seek to identify individuals based on their features, i.e. biometric data, and may lead to criminal investigations and/or action against you.”

It said the technology was only used for the “establishment of legal claims” and when “necessary for reasons of substantial public interest”.

BBW said there was a threat of the UK becoming a “surveillance state” and posted this comment online “The Times noted our investigation and our campaigning against police and private use of live facial recognition and agreed with our assertion that there is an epidemic of live facial recognition, the fact that there is no legal basis for its use, and the potential for the UK to become a surveillance state if this technology is allowed to be used.”