LONDON – London’s police department said on Friday (Jan 24) that it would begin using facial recognition to spot criminal suspects with video cameras as they walk the streets, adopting a level of surveillance that is rare outside China.
The decision is a major development in the use of a technology that has set off a worldwide debate about the balance between security and privacy.
Police departments contend that the software gives them a way to catch criminals who may otherwise avoid detection.
Critics say the technology is an invasion of privacy, has spotty accuracy and is being introduced without adequate public discussion.
Britain has been at the forefront of the debate.
In a country with a history of terrorist attacks, police surveillance has traditionally been more accepted than in other Western countries.
Closed circuit television cameras line the streets.
The technology London plans to deploy goes beyond many of the facial recognition systems used elsewhere, which match a photo against a database to identify a person.
The new tools use software that can immediately identify people on a police watch list as soon as they are filmed on a video camera.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that the technology would help quickly identify and apprehend suspects and help “tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and help protect the vulnerable.”
“Every day, our police officers are briefed about suspects they should look out for,” Nick Ephgrave, assistant commissioner of the police department, said in the statement. Live facial recognition, he said, “improves the effectiveness of this tactic.”
Privacy groups criticised London’s decision and vowed to take legal action to try to stop the deployment of the software.
“This decision represents an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the UK,” said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a London-based group that has been fighting the use of facial recognition.
“This is a breathtaking assault on our rights, and we will challenge it.”
Last year, a British judge said that police departments could use the technology without violating privacy or human rights, a case that is under appeal.
The Metropolitan Police said it would be transparent about deploying the technology.
Officers will post signs and hand out leaflets when the cameras are in use.