Facial recognition technology now available to Western states could make China look like amateurs in mass surveillance

Is Orwell's dystopia becoming a reality? (Photo by Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images)


For me, the moment the surveillance society really began to hit home was as far back as 2010, when primary schools in the UK started fingerprinting their pupils as a matter of course. This we were told was to help children get lunch and to facilitate the use of school libraries.

While the children became used to having their biometric details taken for mundane things, there is no evidence that school meals were more delicious or that literacy rates improved one jot. All we have is people being brought up to think that it is normal for personal data to be collected by authority figures.

Finally in 2022 the government issued guidance, saying that it was illegal to take biometric details including facial recognition, both live and static, retinal scanning and palm-vein scanning without prior parental consent.

What was interesting about this educational dystopia is that it wasn’t the government that was pushing for this. Instead it was the private sector pushing their products into schools and making very healthy profits as they did so. School heads and their boards of governors were being gulled into being the foot soldiers of a private surveillance state.

Scroll forward to 2023, as part of a series of eye catching electioneering – sorry, policy – proposals, the UK’s policing minister Chris Philp announced that he was planning to have all 45 million photographs used by the Passport service scanned into a police database to act as a digital police line up.

This is despite there being no evidence that facial recognition technology is effective in any of the areas that it has been trialled in the UK.

In fact, according to Big Brother Watch (BBW) – a UK civil liberties pressure group, all the evidence points the other way. In one study of 560,000 people whose faces were scanned, only 57 were correctly identified while 90 were falsely identified. One of the police-led trials in South Wales was challenged in court. The result was unequivocal. The trials clearly contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.

The problem now seems to be that the UK government and the police appear to be in cahoots with the private technology producers in attempting to ignore the Court’s ruling. Recent document leaks have shown that Philp – who Silke Carlo, the Director of BBW, describes as someone who “doesn’t seem to have diagnosed the problem” – is not merely keen on live Facial Recognition Technology being rolled out across the country, but is prepared to put pressure on the UK’s Information Commissioner (ICO), the regulatory body in order to make it happen.

Days after a meeting with Facewatch, a leader in the technology, Philp wrote to the ICO’s office with a scarcely concealed threat. Grant them what they need, or else.

Meanwhile, despite the judgment and no verifiable evidence that facial recognition technology is in fact helping fight retail crime, the trials continue and the UK government ploughs ahead with its plan to make every UK citizen a permanent police suspect.

Compare and contrast the situation within the EU, where despite its somewhat schizophrenic approach to biometric data capture there is a serious attempt to address the issue of the civil liberties threats created by Facial Recognition Technology.

The European Union’s upcoming AI legislation has already classified “Real-time and remote biometric identification systems, such as facial recognition” as posing unacceptable risks. This is despite its new border technology harvesting biometric from anybody legally entering the territories of the European Union.

While it is fair to say that regulators and legislators are notoriously slow on the uptake when it comes to new technology, the rapid growth in power and scope of AI in society means that it needs to grow up, and grow up fast.

As Ms Carlo says, right now there is no political party in the UK that has grasped the civil liberties threats posed, merely a few stalwart backbenchers.

But the simple fact is that we are at a very dangerous moment. We are seeing a combination of things: Digital Central Currencies; facial recognition; the explosion of personal data held both publicly and privately; and the threat of state and non state actors accessing that data. These could cumulatively lead to the sort of day to day repression we saw during the Covid panic made permanent. But this time with real and digital teeth.

Today the EU is launching a list of technologies that it doesn’t want to fall into the hands of the Chinese, “Object recognition” is on that list.

But the simple fact remains that for our governors, the simplicity and ease that AI technology can give them control over our daily lives is just too tempting. It is up to civil society to warn the general public about the threat before it is too late.

It is darkly funny that while we look at the Chinese authorities and their imposition of social credit scores as part of the way that they control their own population, we are, particularly in the UK, introducing technology that would make the Chinese look like amateurs in repression.