In my home city of Cardiff, the police have started collecting people’s faces.
Innocent members of the public doing their Christmas shopping. Fans attending a football match. Demonstrators peacefully protesting outside an arms fair. In recent months, South Wales Police have deployed facial recognition technology on all of them, with no public consultation and no consent.
This intrusive new tech sees specialist surveillance cameras scan the faces of passers-by, making unique biometric maps of their features. These maps are then compared to and matched with images on bespoke police databases – which can come from social media.
I believe I’m one of the thousands of people who’ve had their faces scanned and stored.
The first time was last December, when I was walking down Queen Street among the crowds of Christmas shoppers – only to see a police van parked on the busy city centre road with a facial recognition camera on top. The force has given no explanation for why they were using such intrusive surveillance on such an ordinary day.
The second time was this March, when I attended a peaceful protest outside the Cardiff Arms Fair. South Wales Police parked a facial recognition van directly opposite our demonstration. It felt like a direct attempt to discourage us from using our legal right to protest.
The police are supposed to protect us and make us feel safe – but this technology does the opposite. It’s intimidating, disproportionate and dangerously inaccurate – and it undermines our rights.
There’s no law or guidance providing proper regulation of facial recognition. There’s no independent oversight of how it’s being used. Parliament hasn’t debated it. The public hasn’t been consulted. South Wales Police didn’t warn people before they rolled it out onto our streets.
But this technology has the potential to trample on the freedoms we take for granted. Having our faces indiscriminately scanned and stored by police as we go about our daily lives renders our privacy rights meaningless and places all of us in a perpetual police line-up.
When people know they are being watched and their personal information is being recorded by law enforcement officers, they change their behaviour. Some will feel scared to protest or express themselves freely – perfectly legal activities that they have every right to take part in. Activities that are crucial to keeping the UK a free, rights-respecting democracy.
And facial recognition doesn’t even help the police catch criminals. By their own admission, South Wales …