King's Cross developers under investigation for scanning public with facial recognition cameras

Information Commissioner investigating whether surveillance is breaching data laws

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 15 August 2019 19:43 BST

A company using live facial recognition software to scan hundreds of thousands of unwitting people in London is under investigation.

The Information Commissioner has launched a probe into the owners of the King’s Cross estate, which surrounds the London railway terminus and includes offices, colleges, shops and restaurants.

The watchdog said thousands of people pass through the area being scanned every day.

“Scanning people’s faces as they lawfully go about their daily lives, in order to identify them, is a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all,” said Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner.

That is especially the case if it is done without people’s knowledge or understanding.

I remain deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, not only by law enforcement agencies but also increasingly by the private sector.

“My office and the judiciary are both independently considering the legal issues and whether the current framework has kept pace with emerging technologies and people’s expectations about how their most sensitive personal data is used.”

The watchdog said it would not hesitate to use its powers to investigate and punish breaches of data and privacy laws “to protect people’s legal rights”.

Inspectors are to visit King’s Cross to inspect the system and request detailed information from the companies involved.

“Any organisations wanting to use facial recognition technology must comply with the law - and they must do so in a fair, transparent and accountable way,” Ms Denham said.

“They must have documented how and why they believe their use of the technology is legal, proportionate and justified.”

Developers Argent admitted using facial recognition to monitor the development following an investigation by the Financial Times, which reported that the technology could also be introduced in the Canary Wharf finance district.

The company has so far refused to publicly confirm how long facial recognition has been used in King’s Cross or how people’s images are processed in line with data protection laws.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wrote to the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership demanding information on Tuesday.

The letter, seen by The Independent, expressed concern about the use of facial recognition and said London’s public spaces must remain free of “separation or segregation”.

Facial recognition trial in London's West End

“There are serious and widespread concerns about the legal framework for the use of this technology, and I have called on the government to legislate in order to provide certainty about exactly how it can be legally used in the UK,” Mr Khan wrote.

“I am writing to request … assurance that you have been liaising with government ministers and the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure it is fully compliant with the law as it stands.”

Police trials of facial recognition are currently under judicial review and a parliamentary report released last month said new laws were “urgently needed” to govern the use of the emerging technology.

Facial recognition trials by the Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police have attracted controversy over high proportions of “false positive” alerts and issues of public consent.

A report by the London Policing Ethnics Panel concluded that the technology must not be used on the general public unless it could be proven to have a significant impact positive impact that outweighs privacy issues.

The Liberty campaign group called the use of facial recognition “an alarming escalation of mass surveillance.”

“The technology is discriminatory and threatens our privacy and freedom of expression,” a spokesperson said. “It has no place in a rights-respecting society.”

A spokesperson for King’s Cross said: In the interest of public safety and to ensure everyone who visits King’s Cross has the best possible experience, we use cameras around the site, as do many other developments and shopping centres, as well as transport nodes, sports clubs and other areas where large numbers of people gather.

“These cameras use a number of detection and tracking methods, including facial recognition, but also have sophisticated systems in place to protect the privacy of the general public.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in