August 16, 2019 / 2:51 PM / 3 months ago

UK mall scans shoppers in facial-recognition trial

LONDON, Aug 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British mall that scanned shoppers using facial-recognition cameras said on Friday it was no longer using technology that advocacy groups called a threat to privacy.

Meadowhall in the northern city of Sheffield, which attracts more than 25 million visitors a year, used the surveillance with police in 2018, according to its owners British Land.

“We conducted a short trial at Meadowhall, in conjunction with the police, and all data was deleted immediately after the trial,” said spokeswoman Claire Scicluna.

She said British Land would change its privacy policy to show “we don’t use the technology at our sites” but refused to rule out using facial recognition at a later date.

A police spokeswoman said its officers had supported a four-week trial to develop “opportunities associated with the use of this technology.”

From speeding up airline boarding to boosting security, facial recognition is increasingly pervasive.

Computers have become adept at identifying people by matching a scan of their facial features against a photograph, but critics say the technology is still prone to errors.

PROBE

This week, Britain’s data protection watchdog launched an investigation into the use of facial recognition by a property developer in London’s central King’s Cross area.

The Information Commissioner said she was “deeply concerned” about the use of the technology in public spaces.

“We will assess any reports and intelligence we receive about uses of the technology and will consider regulatory action,” a spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties group, said the trial at Meadowhall in Sheffield was part of a nationwide “epidemic”.

The technology had been used at a 2018 exhibition on China’s terracotta warriors at Liverpool’s World Museum and at Birmingham’s Millennium Point conference centre, it said.

National Museums Liverpool group, which runs the World Museum, said it used facial recognition during the exhibition due to a heightened security risk, after seeking advice from police and local counter-terrorism advisors.

“This ... was clearly communicated in signage around the venue. World Museum did not receive any complaints and it is no longer in use,” it said in a statement, adding that any future use would be with ICO guidance.

Millennium Point declined to comment but pointed at its privacy notice, which states the company “sometimes” uses facial recognition at the request of law enforcement.

“The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing,” said Big Brother’s director, Silkie Carlo.

“Facial recognition is the perfect tool of oppression and the widespread use we’ve found indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency,” she said in a statement.

Big Brother Watch said a number of casinos and betting shops also had policies that referred to using facial recognition.

Ubiquitous cameras could in theory discourage perfectly lawful behaviour, be it attending a protest, conducting an affair or meeting someone with a criminal conviction, rights group say.

Critics say the technology also has accuracy problems, particularly identifying people from ethnic minorities. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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