Facial recognition is already a regular feature of the British high street, but its future is controversial. Currently, bans are limited to sensitive sites like government buildings for equipment that is subject to China’s National Intelligence Law. Little prevents it from being installed elsewhere. Oversight and enforcement is, however, provided by the U.K.’s Information Commission Office (ICO), which considers that “when LFR [live facial recognition] is used in public places for the automatic and indiscriminate collection of biometric data, there is a high bar for its use to be lawful.”
Yet this position may be softened, at least in practice. Revealed in reported minutes from a behind-closed-doors meeting on March 8, 2023 that have recently been released to the NGO Big Brother Watch under a freedom of information request, the U.K.’s Home Office, i.e. its ministry of the interior, has agreed to turn up the volume in requesting the ICO to back the further rollout of facial recognition technology under private hands in retail environments. The purpose is to combat shoplifting.
The Home Office did so after hearing the opinions of Chris Philip, the policing minister, and Facewatch, a company that supplies facial recognition tech, both of whom were at the meeting. Until just March this year, Facewatch was fostering custom for Hikvision, a part state-owned Chinese company designated by Ukraine as an international sponsor or war, whose technology has been implicated in both torture and the destruction of the Uyghur people that is recognized as genocide by the U.K. parliament. Hikvision already has perhaps 164,000 other networks connected to the U.K. internet already.
Evidenced by China, facial recognition cameras and associated systems are extremely dangerous instruments. They can be used to racially profile people and thereby facilitate an apartheid society, eliminating the rights and freedoms of those at the bottom of the pyramid, a risk that major makers like Dahua normalize with equipment that categorizes people by whether they are white, black or yellow. Even when not intentionally deployed in such a manner, they have an uncomfortable habit of playing out that way due to intrinsic biases and polluted data sets.
This is not to mention the risk of the data they gather ending in the hands of China’s Communist Party. Cameras produced in the country have reportedly been found calling back to the motherland before. Could such discrete messages be used, for example, to provide information on where abduction targets like Hong Kong’s Nathan Law (羅冠聰) do their daily shopping? If there is a credible danger for U.K. government buildings, surely the technology is not totally risk-free elsewhere.
Like many facial recognition advocates, Facewatch dismisses fears. It claims to take great care over algorithms and software, cutting companies like Hikvision out of them, for now. It further promises that its data is kept with private companies, not the police. In doing so, however, it ignores both that backdoors can be built into hardware and the normal business flux of day-to-day life, by which a non-use policy for certain software today does not equate to non-use of the same (or worse) tomorrow. Facewatch is also far from the only company installing facial recognition technology, some of whose decision-making may not be so stringent.
Of greater concern, however, are the interplaying forces that have brought the U.K. to this point. For one, many stores are automating the check-out procedure so that it becomes largely staffless, part of a wider automation trend that facial recognition cameras themselves embody. For another, the country is enduring a widening wealth gap and a cost-of-living crisis. Other societal ills include widespread drug addiction and homelessness. In this context, it would be strange if rates of theft in categories such as food, drink and baby formula were not suddenly rising.
Thus, the true danger for the future becomes visible in the retail microcosm, and it is not shoplifting: If poorly planned automation lowers the barriers to crime while simultaneously reducing people’s earning opportunities and broadening inequality, then petty theft and other transgressions are likely to escalate. Repressive technology will seem like the go-to solution, especially without firmer rules in place to control it. It may also appear to be the quick fix if policies entwine the fate of the domestic economy with the whims of hostile dictators, thereby increasing vulnerability to sudden price shocks and rippling volatility.
Naturally, the premium purveyor for repressive technology will be China, which has advanced systems to smother its own inherent instability with extreme people control. It may well see the export of such equipment as a strategy for authoritarian creep, enticing other countries step by step to endorse its governance model. Its excesses risk becoming an unremarkable part of daily life, too, as its security brands proliferate in the democratic world with the complicity of retailers like the U.K.’s Sports Direct, whose clothes are allegedly in part produced with forced-labor cotton from East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and whose customers are now biometrically analyzed on entry, with the whole process potentially overseen end-to-end by the aforementioned Hikvision.
Furthermore, Facewatch’s own website openly describes it as “agnostic” to the technology it employs, deferring decisions regarding its appropriateness to a government that has overseen massive perforation of the Chinese Communist Party into every sector of its economy. Put simply, as a representative of the facial recognition industry, it is just as happy to monetarily empower companies with links to the extrajudicial detention of up to one million people as it is to market its products on the footing of justice for retailers. That is a very strange concept of right and wrong, and a disturbing perspective from the provider of instruments with proven draconian end uses.