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Live facial recognition technology has no place in a free society

3 min read

The right to privacy is a fundamental cornerstone of any free society. The darkest moments in human history reflect episodes of peoples bereft of democracy, free speech – and privacy.

It is a right that is too often taken for granted and too often belittled by those who use the trope: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This slur pines for a nation of automatons who are drone-like and conformist. The reality is that, in any free and flourishing society, we all have something to protect – the privacy and dignity of our personal and family lives, beyond the eyes of the state. That is why we have passwords on our phones, locks on our doors, and curtains on our windows.

While the development of new technology, including AI, brings hope and promise for the future of health, transport and communications, the development of new automated systems in public life pose threats to our privacy and our civil liberties more broadly.

That is why I, alongside 64 cross-party colleagues in Parliament, are calling for an immediate stop to the use of live facial recognition surveillance in the United Kingdom.

This new form of AI surveillance technology is very different from the CCTV we find scattered across our society in 2023. Our faces are personal identifiers; live facial recognition cameras perform real-time face-scans and compare them with images of people on “watch lists”. In this sense, this surveillance technology threatens to turn us into walking barcodes or, worse, walking ID cards.

Basic principles should govern the use of surveillance in a free society like the UK. Surveillance should be limited and proportionate. It should be targeted and based on reasonable suspicion. Where surveillance is applied en masse to the general population, these practices start to pose threats to our fundamental freedoms.

Live facial recognition is one such technology, used by police forces and increasingly private companies to monitor crowds of innocent people indiscriminately. It is entirely unacceptable that a societal shift towards this technology has come without any parliamentary approval or even a debate in either House.

We are living through an authoritarian period in our politics. During the pandemic, I warned about the erosion of our freedoms. Once precedents are set, incursions on our rights can be hard to scale back.

When it comes to the right to protest, undue restrictions introduced in a time of a crisis were quickly followed by disproportionate new restrictions introduced via the government’s Public Order Act.

Yet despite the gradual “ratcheting” of restrictions on our freedoms, there is cause for optimism. Those of us who stood up to disproportionate proposals to issue entirely innocent protesters with ankle tags where they were deemed to have been “disruptive” forced the government to abandon these plans. Common sense won the day in a victory for privacy and free expression.

This surveillance technology threatens to turn us into walking barcodes or, worse, walking ID cards

The ratcheting can be stopped, but only if those who treasure civil liberties are both stubborn and vocal.

It is now time for the government to listen to those of us who share concerns about facial recognition surveillance, too. As the UK increasingly considers our approach to AI and the societal harms it threatens, the potential impact on our civil liberties must feature, and that should include live facial recognition.

As technology advances, the question for policymakers is simple: are we a society that values our civil liberties, where we draw clear lines in the sand when it comes to surveillance practices, or do we want to join the club of states that treat their citizens as nations of suspects?

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