A group of human rights campaigners and MPs have called for an immediate end to the use of AI facial recognition surveillance by the UK government and private companies.

Live facial recognition (LFR) cameras are used to survey faces in public and private spaces. When people pass in front of a camera their face is streamed directly to the LFR system, which contains a watchlist of people wanted by the police or the courts.

In March 2023, it was revealed that Sports Direct and Flannels, two of the brands operated by Frasers Group, were using LFR cameras in at least 27 stores. Previously a spokesperson for the company has said surveillance is carried out to “ensure the safety of our staff and to help prevent theft”.

Today’s (6 Oct) call for a ban on the use of LFR camera’s follows a proposal by policing minister Chris Philip which would grant police access to more than 45 million images stored in the UK’s passport photos database.

The human rights group warns AI surveillance poses a serious infringement on human rights and lacks safeguards and democratic mandates.

Currently, police forces using LFR technology warn citizens in advance by advertising notices of areas where it is active.

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Recently, LFR has been used at large events, such as Harry Styles and Beyoncé concerts in Cardiff, and by the Metropolitan Police during the Coronation in May.

An independent report, published by Essex University in 2019, found it is “highly possible” that the use of LFR by the Metropolitan Police “would be held unlawful if challenged before the courts.”

Professor Fraser Sampson, the surveillance camera commissioner, told the BBC that the proposals risk “disproportionality and damaging public trust.”

In August, the Guardian reported that the UK’s intelligence agencies, including MI5 and MI6, are lobbying the UK government towards a lighter-touch approach to regulating artificial intelligence (AI).

Those calling for the ban include the European Digital Rights (EDR), Human Rights Watch and Big Brother Watch along with parliamentarians from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Green parties.

While European MEPs endorsed a blanket ban on LFR in public spaces back in June under the AI Act and several major US cities banned LFR, the UK’s approach has been deemed an outlier in the West.

Already, the Europe’s AI Act has received criticism from Big Tech as a barrier to innovation regarding the strict rules that AI categorised as high-risk would require. 

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “As hosts of the AI summit in autumn, the UK should show leadership in adopting new technologies in a way that has material benefits for the public and our rights, rather than a way that mirrors the dystopian surveillance practices of Saudi Arabia and China.”

China announced new regulations for facial recognition technology in public spaces in August.