London’s police department said on Friday that it would begin using facial recognition technology in the city to identify people on the street in real time with video cameras, adopting a level of surveillance that is rare outside of China, the New York Times reports. The decision is a major development in the use of technology that has caused a worldwide debate about the balance between security and privacy. Police departments contend the software gives them a technological edge to catch criminals that may otherwise avoid detection. Critics say it invades privacy and is being rolled out without adequate public discussion. Britain has been at the forefront of the debate. In a place where CCTV cameras line the streets, police surveillance has been more accepted than in other Western countries.
The technology London will use goes beyond many of the facial recognition systems used elsewhere, which match a photo against a database to identify a person. The new systems, created by the company NEC, attempt to identify people on a police watch list in real time, giving officers a chance to stop them in the specific location. Under pressure to address rising crime, London police said the technology would help quickly identify and apprehend suspects and help “tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and help protect the vulnerable.” In the U.S., cities including New York, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., have at least piloted the use of the real-time systems. Researchers have found problems with many facial recognition systems, including trouble accurately identifying people who are not white men.