There are a whopping 6 million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom, which should be concerning if you’re a resident. These security cameras passively record to tapes and hard drives, which could be accessed if the government feels like it.
However, we know for certain that the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system is storing the data of number plates on hard drives and actively matching these plates against a database of missing vehicles and wanted people. This is where things are starting to get a bit unnerving. The Metropolitan Police recently asked for access to London’s ANPR network. Why? So they can conduct a real-life Minority Report. The system would carry out real-time facial recognition on all motorists entering London.
Enter Facewatch. This system allows retailers, barkeeps and restaurateurs to share private CCTV footage with the police and other Facewatch users. Using Facewatch, shoplifters, loiterers, and generally unpleasant or suspicious customers can have their identity unknowingly shared with other Facewatch users, which, according to the BBC, number nearly 10,000. Shop owners and police have reviewed the service on the Facewatch website — giving it mainly positive reviews. It’s generally being used as its intended, but now an update to the Facewatch allows integration with real-time facial recognition systems like NEC’s NeoFace.
Before the update, users of the system would have to actively keep an eye out for people on the crowdsourced Facewatch ‘watch list.’ The update takes that out of the equation by alerting users when a member of that watch list has entered the premises. Sounds a lot like something from Minority Report, yeah? By being on this list, you’re automatically associated with crime even if you haven’t been convicted. You can be added to the “subject of interest” list for a number of reasons that don’t have to do with crime — thus unfairly labeling you as a criminal even if you’ve just had an argument with someone who happens to be a Facewatch user.
There are so many variables that need to be assessed with systems like this, but Facewatch paints criminals with a very broad brush and being in the wrong place at the wrong time and ending up on a CCTV camera could get you on one of those lists and thus earn you an unwarranted shadowing by security at every location you enter.
If these things are used properly they could really do some good, but I – and many others – fear that this will never be the case. What’s more, the effectiveness of these systems is, supposedly, increasing while their prices are falling. Facewatch creator Simon Gordon told the BBC something that privacy advocates will find extremely cringe-worthy.
“Probably by the end of next year, it will be almost like having a mobile phone,”