Above: LFR maps the distances between facial features in order to create a positive ID. Credit: Liberty.

Live Facial Recognition

The Met Police have announced that they are now using Live Facial Recognition--LFR--technology. LFR is a video-streaming-based system that "can help locate a person from a digital image." As the Met have explained, "we're using this technology to prevent and detect crime by helping officers find wanted criminals. LFR cameras are focused on an area; when people pass through the area their images are streamed directly to the live facial recognition system. This system contains a 'watchlist': a list of offenders wanted by the police or the courts, or those who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others." With this announcement London Police make it public that certain of their cameras are automatically actively looking out for anyone on a visual list of suspects. With the introduction of LFR the notion of a human commander in a CCTV surveillance control-room becomes out-moded: the human watching the screens is replaced with an automatic system in which the only human component is a Police operative on the street responding to a positive ID from the network, "where it finds a match it sends an alert to officers on the scene. An officer then compares the camera image to the person they see and decides whether to speak to the person or not." LFR heralds a new era of state control. Of course there is no possibility for the public to comprehend the number and scope of the suspects on the official watchlist--there is only the knowledge that the system can seek matches in real time and that any member of the public might be stopped, "we always explain why we've stopped someone; we also give them a leaflet that explains how they can contact us to ask further questions." For J.G. Ballard, when CCTV-based number-plate recognition technology was first introduced in London, the most shocking aspect for him was the general level of apathy from Londoners. And so it is true again with LFR, there is a sense in which the news seems to be greeted as purely anecdotal or fantastical--as if it were taking place in a spy movie or a dystopian novel. An era of excessively severe surveillance has begun without dissent. The Met have begun a new chapter in technology-based watching and the public have accepted (as they also did with body-worn video cameras). It is a strange time for those who remember London before the cameras came. The chilling effect of LFR on behaviour in the public space will be hard to measure. It can be argued that for many the reassurance and protection offered by the camera-eyes has gradually become seductive, acceptable, and ultimately desirable.

(29 January 2020)