London’s King’s Cross area has become one of the first public spaces in the UK to see facial recognition surveillance cameras introduced. King Cross covers 67 acres of recently redeveloped space in north-central London that contains one of the capital’s biggest railway stations, a major Underground hub and is home to major new office, retail and residential developments including Google’s new UK HQ. It is one of the biggest transport hubs in the city and tens of millions of individuals pass through the area every year.
The hundreds of thousands of commuters and tourists that pass through the Kings Cross area every day are now under the view of surveillance cameras that a spokesperson for the management confirmed to the Financial Times “use a number of detection and tracking methods, including facial recognition”.
And the Kings Cross development is set to be replicated in other major London hubs. Canary Wharf Group, the company that owns 97-acres of prime office space and public areas that is home to the London HQs of big banks such as HSBC, Barclays and Credit Suisse is also reportedly in talks around introducing facial recognition software into its security systems. Around 150,000 people pass through the area daily.
Kings Cross and Canary Wharf are connected by the fact that both are busy areas which are privately owned – public areas as well as private buildings and grounds. That leaves a grey area around how technologies such as facial recognition can be used. Legally, members of the public must give their explicit consent if personal data including images of their face is collected.
However, there are grey areas. Kings Cross say that their cameras have “sophisticated systems in place to protect the privacy of the general public”. Canary Wharf also insist that when facial recognition technology is introduced it will be activated only for specific purposes or in the case of threats and will not operate continuously on members of the public and office workers passing through.
Private businesses such as several supermarket chains are also introducing facial recognition systems. They will be used to spot known shoplifters and alert cashiers to who the software thinks should be asked for ID if buying alcohol or other age-restricted products. There is less regulation around how the latest technology in the world of facial recognition can be used in private premises. That also confuses the situation in areas such as Kings Cross and Canary Wharf which include privately owned public spaces. It’s a trend that is also growing in London as a means to attract redevelopment investment for large areas of the city.
Surveillance systems that use facial recognition are most often associated with regimes such as that of China but the technology is becoming an increasing fact of life here in the UK as well. While many welcome the potential security and crime prevention benefits the technology should bring, that is balanced by privacy concerns. The rapid proliferation of the technology means a clear legislative framework around how, when and where it is used in the UK has become a matter of priority.