Council’s facial recognition trial should concern us all

AnyVision conducted a trial of its facial recognition technology with Waltham Forest Council last year
AnyVision conducted a trial of its facial recognition technology with Waltham Forest Council last year

Stephen Clement fears the creeping growth of surveillance technology

Waltham Forest Council carried out a three-day trial of facial recognition software in January 2019, something revealed by The Daily Telegraph later that year. But why?

The council said it wanted to see if the technology could “assist as a more efficient search method for known suspects, to monitor criminal activity, and to assist looking for vulnerable/missing people if required”.

AnyVision, an Israeli company, had approached the local authority and offered to demonstrate the software for free. The technology used existing cameras at four locations in the borough, matching test subjects’ faces against a “watch list”. Only council employees had taken part in the trial – and the council did not consult residents about it.

I put some further questions to the council about the trial and a spokesperson told me: “Consultation with members of the public was not required as the trial was conducted with the consent of the monitored individuals (three consenting members of staff) for the purposes of the trial only.”

The Telegraph further reported that “privacy campaigners said it is the first example they have come across of a council using this technology”.

Facial recognition is controversial; campaigners say it can lead to mass surveillance and encroach on democratic freedoms. This is not just a local but a global concern.

The same company that supplied Waltham Forest Council made headlines in October 2019 when US broadcaster NBC News reported that AnyVision’s facial recognition technology was used to secretly surveil Palestinians in the West Bank. The story followed earlier coverage in Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

As part of the story, Microsoft’s investment in AnyVision came under scrutiny. It led to Microsoft conducting an audit which confirmed in March 2020 that the software was used at checkpoints at border crossings between Israel and the West Bank, but concluded that it had not powered a mass surveillance programme there. Nevertheless, Microsoft said it would divest its minority stake in AnyVision and would not make further minority investments in companies selling the technology.

Back in London, the Metropolitan Police began using a different type of facial recognition technology earlier this year, despite a questionable legal basis for doing so, as well as operational shortcomings. There is now a pending legal challenge against the Met Police, brought by Green Party peer Jenny Jones and campaign group Big Brother Watch.

Recent data from the Met’s trial at Oxford Circus showed seven out of eight matches using the software were incorrect, which could lead to police detaining the wrong people. Taken to the extreme, facial recognition undermines civil liberties.

As part of my investigation into Waltham Forest Council’s trial of the technology, I asked to see the authority’s contractual agreement with AnyVision and the trial’s evaluation report, via a Freedom of Information request. The council responded that it would not release the documents as the company “has not provided the council with permission to disclose”.

A spokesperson later confirmed the council has no long-term plans to use facial recognition technology, but gave no further reason for the trial other than saying that “AnyVision contacted the council and offered an opportunity to demonstrate their product”.

The council’s trial of facial recognition software is an example of a much wider problem. I’m a member of the Just Algorithms Action Group (JAAG), which shares a concern about how technologies such as facial recognition are used and their impact on society. We want to shine a light on these often opaque systems, to ensure decision makers are publicly accountable.

Find out more about Just Algorithms Action Group:
Visit jaag.org.uk