Despite a deeply mixed public reaction to the idea of the Metropolitan Police introducing intrusive surveillance technology city-wide Labour, the Tories and media darling Rory Stewart have all jumped on the chance to look tough on crime at the expense of civil freedoms.
In an interview today Stewart joined Sadiq Khan and Tory barely-known Shaun Bailey in recommending that police be given high-technology powers to impose the sort of surveillance that even Soviet Union bureaucrats would have envied.
In the current era of pervasive online data-scraping, questions which might have been posed around the ethical implications of giving the police such powers have largely vanished. Most of the concerns raised in public have instead been about the potential police misuse of data, noting that such auto-generated information on people’s movements could potentially be shared with untrustworthy actors.
Whether the force, which only weeks ago was caught out comparing Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion to Combat 18 and Isis as a means of undermining climate change movements, would itself misuse the opportunity to build a truly enormous database of dissenting citizen’s comings and goings is a question left unasked. In response to questions about data misuse generally however, Stewart said:
“I think there are challenges about how you use that data … but we must make London safer. The homicide rate is the highest rate it’s been for 11 years and it’s not just that it’s muggings …”
Stewart and his Tory rival Bailey have been making great play of a supposed knife-crime crisis in London to attack Khan’s record as mayor, with Stewart highlighting his time as Prisons Minister — he has even pledged to train as a special constable.
Violent crime has been rising in London, though not by nearly the sort of levels implied by the current moral panic. The 2019 Safe Cities index for example continues to rate it as one of the safest urban zones in the world [pdf], while the Met Police’s own reports have highlighted an overall murder rate of 1.5 per 100,000 people, broadly in line with other European cities such as Berlin and Paris according to recent research by DIW Berlin [pdf, page 57]. Compared to the likes of New York with a rate of 3.4, or Washington on 17 (!), London is positively staid.
Such increases as have happened are more than adequately explained by the simple reality that austerity has made more people desperate — a factor which does not appear to have inspired social spending pledges from the various candidates. Instead Stewart and Shaun Bailey, who has luridly described the “madness” of “stabbings in broad daylight” have doubled down on the media storm in the hope of making inroads with voters as policing hardmen. Bailey has repeatedly called for a marked expansion in CCTV and scanning tech as part of his pitch.
And in an effort at triangulation under the fire of media pundits whose research appears to mostly consist of Daily Express articles Sadiq Khan, who initially expressed “concerns” over the technology, has now backed down on reining in the Met’s latest toy.
Khan was forced to apologise just four months ago after it emerged that, during a surveillance trial at Kings Cross, police had collaborated with the area’s private landlord when it handed over pictures that had been snooped of people in the area. When the force announced it would be rolling out the system city-wide earlier this week however the mayor’s response was merely:
“New technology has a role in keeping Londoners safe, but it’s equally important that the Met are proportionate in the way it is deployed and are transparent about where and when it is used in order to retain the trust of all Londoners.
“City Hall and the Ethics Panel will continue to monitor the use of facial recognition technology as part of their role in holding the Met to account.”
This non-committal have at it approach, while it may help avoid difficult confrontations ahead of the mayoral elections in May, largely abandons civil liberties in favour of a short-term appeal to the chatter of the day — and may not prove as popular in the long run as is commonly pushed.
Active research on public opinion over facial recognition is sparse other than recent Ada Lovelace Institute polling, which suggests that while a high percentage (70%) of the public currently believe the police should be able to use facial recognition technology in investigations, 55% of respondents felt this should only be in “specific circumstances.” The idea of it such surveillance tactics being used more broadly without giving the public an ability to opt out is in a decided minority:
Taking into account the biases of some of the questioning, the biggest fear illustrated is that giving the Met powers to map everyone’s faces could lead to “normalisation” of surveillance tactics in everyday life. Consent dips enormously if the technology is applied on public transport, for instance:
Public acceptance of the practice, even with a degree of discomfort — and the abandoning of BME people who are disproportionately misidentified — is by no means a given. In Hong Kong for example, its use to curb dissent has seen so-called “smart” camera towers pulled down by protesters and the widespread adoption of masks and umbrellas as a means of defeating them despite, as in London, rules requiring the removal of face coverings.
Civil liberties groups have announced they will be opening legal proceedings against facial recognition, led by Big Brother Watch which had previously raised thousands for a court challenge when the idea of a city-wide rollout was mooted last year. BBW director Silkie Carlo said:
“This decision represents an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the UK.
“It flies in the face of the independent review showing the Met’s use of facial recognition was likely unlawful, risked harming public rights and was 81% inaccurate.
“This is a breath-taking assault on our rights and we will challenge it, including by urgently considering next steps in our ongoing legal claim against the Met and the Home Secretary.
“This move instantly stains the new Government’s human rights record and we urge an immediate reconsideration.”
Pic: Facial recognition mural in Hollywood, CA by Yo! What Happened to Peace