OnPolicing Blog

Facial Recognition Technology Deployment and Mass Surveillance in London

February 12, 2020

Written by

Jim Burch

Jim Burch
President, National Police Foundation

Having the authority to do something doesn’t always mean that we should. That’s the thought that came to mind when reading the news of the London Metropolitan Police’s recent deployment of facial recognition technology in east London.

While some may say we should “mind our own business” and not worry about what the Met does in London, there are times when the decisions and actions of one agency impacts all of policing. I believe this is one of them and it’s regrettable and dangerous. Here’s why:

The ongoing debate here in the U.S. about the use of facial recognition by law enforcement has in many ways been substantially influenced by what-if’s that many in U.S. law enforcement have said they don’t want to see. Mass surveillance is one such example. To be fair, the Guardian’s reporting has included a response from the Met that the deployment is an “intelligence-driven operation” which suggests to us that there may be information that prompted the use of the tool in this area at this time, either for deterrence or enforcement or both. Despite this plausible explanation, and despite the Met’s attempts to be transparent and obvious about the use of the technology at that place and time doesn’t make it a better decision.

The National Police Foundation (U.S.-based) has been outspoken on this technology and law enforcement’s access to it. We’ve argued then and now that the tool is valuable and important and will likely save lives and/or provide justice and perhaps more swiftly than may otherwise occur. We’ve argued that the law enforcement leaders we’ve engaged with don’t intend to conduct mass surveillance but want a tool to assist in performing tasks that otherwise may take days, weeks, months or may never produce information helpful to an investigation. We’ve argued for self-regulation, accountability and transparency over other forms of regulation such as bans and prohibitions, some of which have been implemented before the technology was even locally available or considered for use.

The deployment of facial recognition technology in a way that constitutes mass surveillance puts these arguments at risk and strengthens the “what-if” scenario arguments, not to mention the privacy implications for those in the area at the time. As much as we respect the long and distinguished tradition of professional policing at the Met, we have to call this one what it is—unnecessary and dangerous. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean that it should.

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