This new technology is being secretly used on streets and in shopping centres across Britain, making potential suspects of us all.
Last week, all of us who live in the UK, and all who visit us, discovered that our faces were being scanned secretly by private companies and have been for some time. We don’t know what these companies are doing with our faces or how long they’ve been doing it because they refused to share this with the Financial Times, which reported on Monday that facial recognition technology is being used in King’s Cross and may be deployed in Canary Wharf, two areas that cover more than 160 acres of London.
We are just as ignorant about what has been happening to our faces when they’re scanned by the property developers, shopping centres, museums, conference centres and casinos that have also been secretly using facial recognition technology on us, according to the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.
But we can take a good guess. They may be matching us against police watchlists, maintaining their own watchlists or sharing their watchlists with the police, other companies and other governments. Our faces may even be used to train the machine-learning algorithms deployed by oppressive regimes such as China, which uses facial recognition technology to monitor and control its people, particularly its Uighur Muslims, more than a million of whom are interned in concentration camps.
Sounds far-fetched? If only. This year the FT also reported that Microsoft built a training dataset of 10m faces taken from 100,000 people and shared it with military researchers and Chinese companies, while NBC News reported that IBM had taken millions of online photos from Flickr, a photo-sharing app, and used them to train facial recognition software.
The training datasets Microsoft and IBM created were shared widely, even though neither obtained people’s consent before taking their faces – a common practice that Prof Jason Schultz, of the New York University School of Law, has called “the dirty little secret of AI training sets”.
A British company called Facewatch has been using its facial recognition software to match people against police watchlists – and against watchlists compiled by its customers.
In February, it was reported that Facewatch was “on the verge of signing data-sharing deals with the Metropolitan police and the City of London police”, was “in talks with Hampshire and Sussex police”, and was testing its software in “a major UK supermarket chain, major events venues and even a prison”. The software, which was trained on the faces of people without their knowledge or consent, has already been deployed in football stadiums, shopping centres and gyms in Brazil.