The UK’s privacy watchdog has opened an investigation into the use of facial recognition cameras in a busy part of central London.
The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, announced she would look into the technology being used in Granary Square, close to King’s Cross station.
Two days ago the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wrote to the development’s owner demanding to know whether the company believed its use of facial recognition software in its CCTV systems was legal.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it was “deeply concerned about the growing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces” and was seeking detailed information about how it is used.
“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,” Denham said. “That is especially the case if it is done without people’s knowledge or understanding.
“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.
“We have launched an investigation following concerns reported in the media regarding the use of live facial recognition in the King’s Cross area of central London, which thousands of people pass through every day.”
She added: “As well as requiring detailed information from the relevant organisations about how the technology is used, we will also inspect the system and its operation onsite to assess whether or not it complies with data protection law.”
On Monday the development’s owners confirmed facial recognition software was being used around the 67-acre, 50-building site.
The consortium of Argent, a property developer, Hermes Investment Management, on behalf of BT Pensioners, and AustralianSuper, an Australian pension scheme, said they were doing so “in the interest of public safety and to ensure that everyone who visits has the best possible experience”.
Liberty, the human rights campaign group, has criticised the use of the technology as a “disturbing expansion of mass surveillance that threatens our privacy and freedom of expression as we go about our everyday lives”.
The ICO had previously warned businesses using the surveillance technology that they needed to demonstrate that its use is “strictly necessary and proportionate” and has a clear basis in law.
Last month the House of Commons science and technology committee suggested authorities cease trials of such technology until a legal framework was established.
In a report on the government’s approach to biometrics and forensics, the MPs referred to automatic facial recognition testing carried out by the Metropolitan police and South Wales police.
They noted that an evaluation of both trials by the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group raised questions about accuracy and bias. Concerns were also raised that police custody images of individuals not convicted of any crime were not being deleted.