Big Brother Unchained: UK Government to Abolish Biometrics and Surveillance Safeguards As It Embraces Facial Recognition

“The lack of attention being paid to [public safeguards] at such a crucial time is shocking, and destruction of the surveillance camera code that we’ve all been using successfully for over a decade is tantamount to vandalism.”

The United Kingdom is at the leading edge of many of the digital authoritarian trends sweeping ostensibly democratic nations. In one of the many dark ironies of our age, it is the government of George Orwell’s native Britain that is seeking to massively escalate its deployment of live facial recognition (LFR) technologies, despite the concerns raised about its potential impact. In late September, 180 rights groups and tech experts called on governments around the world to halt their use of facial recognition surveillance.

On the other side of the English channel, the EU Parliament has voted for a blanket ban on the use of LFR in public spaces, as too have some US cities. By contrast, the UK government is escalating its deployment of the controversial surveillance technology.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Indian tech billionaire N R Narayana Murthy, is determined to transform the UK into a world leader in AI governance. Said governance apparently involves gutting many of the limited safeguards protecting the public from the potential downsides and dangers of AI, of which there are many. This, of course, is no accident; if there was any time the British public needed those safeguards, it would be right now, as the government unleashes facial recognition technologies across the urban landscape.

As we reported in early August, live facial recognition (LFR) surveillance, where people’s faces are biometrically scanned by cameras in real-time and checked against a database, is being used by an increasing number of UK retailers amid a sharp upsurge in shoplifting — with the blessing, of course, of the UK government. Police forces are also being urged to step up their use of LFR. The technology has also been deployed at the Coronation of King Charles III, sports events including Formula 1, and concerts, despite ongoing concerns about its accuracy as well as the huge ethical and privacy issues it raises.

According to the UK government, this is all about fighting crime:


But research by Big Brother Watch, a London-based civil rights and privacy organisation, found that more than 89% of UK police facial recognition alerts to date have wrongly identified members of the public as people of interest. The (likely) real object of the government’s interest is not shoplifters, but rather political activists, as a recent article in the Guardian hinted:

[D]ocuments obtained through a freedom of information request revealed that two-thirds of people on a secret watchlist drawn up by Northamptonshire police were not wanted for arrest or suspected of “criminal activity”, prompting campaigners to believe that the majority are likely to have been protesters.

Of 790 names on the watchlist, just 234 people were “wanted for arrest, either on a warrant and/or suspicion of criminal activity”, with 556 others not wanted for arrest.

Critics say using biometric surveillance could impinge on a person’s “freedom of expression” and deter people from protesting. Madeleine Stone, senior advocacy officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “Live facial recognition is a dystopian mass surveillance tool that turns streets into police lineups..”

But the government is not stopping there. Its new Data Protection and Digital Information Act, expected to become law in the Spring of 2024, seeks to abolish the roles of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commission (BSCC), an independent advisory board that was, to some extent, helping to hold the public sector to account for its use of AI. The BSCC’s oversight functions include:

  • Reviewing police handling of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints.
  • Maintaining an up-to-date surveillance camera code of practice with standards and guidance for practitioners.
  • Setting out technical and governance matters for most public body surveillance systems.
  • Providing guidance on technical and procurement matters to ensure that future surveillance systems are of the right standard and purchased from reliable suppliers.

In its bid to eliminate the BSCC, the government clearly wants to have even freer reign to surveil and control the lives of British. The outgoing Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, who leaves his post today (Oct. 31) with no replacement lined up, described the government’s latest move as “shocking” and “tantamount to vandalism”:

After receiving this report, I am more concerned than ever that, unless the government acts soon, there will be a worrying vacuum in our arrangements for overseeing and regulating these crucial areas of public life just when society needs those safeguards more than ever.

The lack of attention being paid to these important matters at such a crucial time is shocking, and destruction of the surveillance camera code that we’ve all been using successfully for over a decade is tantamount to vandalism…

There is no question that AI-driven biometric surveillance can be intrusive, and that the line between what is private and public surveillance is becoming increasingly blurred. The technology is among us already and the speed of change is dizzying with powerful capabilities evolving and combining in novel and challenging ways…

As proposed, the bill would remove the role of the independent commissioner providing oversight over biometrics databases, replacing it with a “Forensic Information Database Strategy Board.” The legislation does not make clear whether this board will be independent from government. It also allows the Secretary of State to change the databases which the board is required to oversee using statutory instruments, a form of secondary legislation that bypasses parliamentary votes.

This follows an announcement last month by the Minister of Policing Chris Filip of plans to create a vast facial recognition database out of passport photos of people in the UK. It is as brazen and as egregious an example of mission creep as you’re likely to find. At present, photos on the police national database are limited to individuals who have been arrested. The police can also check images from doorbell and dashcam technologies, as well as home and business security cameras. But it could soon have its hands on the photos of 45.7 million passport holders.

“Philp’s plan to subvert Brits’ passport photos into a giant police database is Orwellian and a gross violation of British privacy principles, said Silkie Carlo, director of the civil liberties and privacy campaigning organisation Big Brother Watch:

It means that over 45 million of us with passports who gave our images for travel purposes will, without any kind of consent or the ability to object, be part of secret police lineups. To scan the population’s photos with highly inaccurate facial recognition technology and treat us like suspects is an outrageous assault on our privacy that totally overlooks the real reasons for shoplifting. Philp should concentrate on fixing broken policing rather than building an automated surveillance state.

Sampson reserved particular scorn for the government’s decision to eliminate the UK’s surveillance camera code, which, like other safeguards such as the BSCC, was created just over a decade ago by David Cameron’s coalition government:

The planned loss of the surveillance camera code is a good example of what will be lost if nothing is done.  It is the only legal instrument we have in this country that specifically governs public space surveillance. It is widely respected by the police, local authorities and the surveillance industry in general. It’s in one of those things that would have to be invented it didn’t already exist, so it seems absolutely senseless to destroy it now, junking the years of hard work it took to get it established.

A report by the Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP), a collaborative initiative between the University of Stirling’s Management School, the University of St Andrews School of Management, and the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Sciences and School of Law, reached a similar conclusion, arguing that the code is widely valued among security and surveillance practitioners. Of the industry experts consulted, Alex Carmichael, from the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board, said:

Without the Surveillance Camera Commissioner you will go back to the old days when it was like the ‘wild west’, which means you can do anything with surveillance cameras so long as you don’t annoy the Information Commissioner…so, there will not be anyone looking at new emerging technologies, looking at their technical requirements or impacts, no one thinking about ethical implications for emerging technologies like face-recognition, it will be a free-for-all.

It would be bad enough if this were happening in isolation, but it isn’t. The UK government has also passed the Online Safety Bill, prompting many messaging apps to threaten to leave the UK due to the potential threat it poses to end-to-end encryption. It has granted police new powers to shut down protests as well as force employees to work during industrial action – or face being sacked. Police forces are also resorting to Section 60AA to require protesters to remove any item being worn for the purpose of concealing their identity. In other words, smile for the cameras!

Together with the Bank of England, the government is pushing hard for the creation of a “digital pound” to replace cash, once again ignoring the public’s deep-seated concerns about the ethical and privacy implications, not to mention their enduring affection for cash. It is also also seriously considering handing over full management of the National Health Service’s federated data platform to Palantir, a US tech giant with intimate ties to defense, intelligence and security industries around the world and whose founder Peter Thiel recently described the UK public’s affection for the NHS as Stockholm Syndrome.

Sadly, most of these trends — particularly the tech-enabled drift toward authoritarianism and centralised technocracy — are generalised among the ostensibly democratic nations of the so-called “Free West.” And as I noted at the beginning of this post, the UK is at the leading edge of almost all of them.


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  1. JohnA

    Suella Braverman, current Home Secretary in the Sunak government, has denounced all the weekend marches of thousands of people in numerous British cities calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, as ‘hate marches’. I am sure she would love to identify all those people and blacklist them via facial recognition technology. Another step along the slippery slope to Big Brother.

    1. Paris

      They were threatening participants with loss of citizenship (for acquired nationalities, not natural born British people) and visas. They are nuts. I despise them to the core. And they have the guts to criticize China, being of the most totalitarian countries in the world. Surveillance state defines it.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I really regret having to say this but I think that the UK will be the first western nation where we will see what happens with a government awarding themselves unlimited power and relegating the majority of the population to a form of a digital ghetto. Not all ghettos need walls you now. Was this a main intent of those who pushed for BREXIT? So that they could do all this without being hampered and stopped by EU laws? And now without those laws, it will be much more easily to pillage British citizens by letting people in like Peter Thiel to do so while the British elite take their cut? I have been to the UK a coupla times and from what I saw with its governments, it always struck me as an iron fist in a velvet glove. Looks like they want to get rid of the velvet gloves now. This will not end well.

    1. Anonymous 2

      You are right, I fear, Rev.

      It was very clear to me that one of the reasons inspiring the press barons/oligarchs who pushed for Brexit was to increase their control over the UK’s government. Without the protection of Brussels, UK politicians and civil servants are much more exposed to the demands of these puppet-masters. These latter clearly have an authoritarian mindset and, as nothing important in the UK now happens without their acceptance, one can assume that this all has their approval. Establishing an ‘enemy within’ who can be used to distract the attention of the electorate is clearly part of the game-plan so establishing increased surveillance to follow the activities of, say, people who sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians or refugees, or who are deemed to be overly concerned about the environment, or fair elections or civil liberties all makes sense. Setting Muslims up as scapegoats may well work (though it has to be said some of these do apparently favour terrorist methods). It clearly causes problems for Labour.

      It pains me that some people on the Left voted for Brexit. Could they not see that any project espoused by the far right – which Brexit very much was – was not going to be in their interests? The far right in the UK are much better resourced and have much better brains working for them so they were always going to be the ones able to take advantage of the changed circumstances.

      The EU may have many flaws but membership or close association with it is still better than most other alternatives realistically on offer to European countries. Outside it, the UK is heading towards being a police state. It would be nice to think a Labour government would stop the rot but I am not going to hold my breath.

      Far too many Britons think: ‘it could not happen here – this is the UK.’ Sadly it is precisely smug, complacency such as you find in England that makes the UK vulnerable.

    2. digi_owl

      UK may always have been like that, but its imperial period allowed the worst examples to happen in the colonies rather than back home.

    3. playon

      The US likes to first test interesting ideas on foreign populations… Africans, African-Americans, etc, and now they’ve progressed to testing things on white people.

  3. Kurtismayfield

    The ruling class thinks that we have submitted ourselves to constant surveillance and control by carrying around our digital soma in our pockets. They don’t have to think ormf rights or not being overt when we are literally carrying a device that spies and manipulates us every day.

  4. SocalJimObjects

    Chancellor Sutler and the Voice of London to the courtesy phone please!!!!

    A friend that I’ve known since college left Hong Kong two years ago for Great Britain because of the lack of democracy in the former. Oops.

  5. Steve Ruis

    Re “Police are using innovative technology, like facial recognition, to fight crime, apprehend offenders and protect the public.” This is clearly not true. It would be a deterrent to crime, aka fight crime, if criminals were to accept that there was a greater chance of being caught in the act, but studies show that criminals are not even deterred by death penalties.

    So, this is government bullshit/propaganda of the usual ilk.

      1. JBird4049

        Doing a dangerous job, like taxi driver, convenience store clerk, or shoplifter means throwing the dice with each fare, customer, or store and hoping not to get snake eyes. For example, during the hangings of the period of the British Bloody Code, often from mere theft, pickpockets would rob the hangings’ spectators.

        The thing is that American police have become less capable, or more incompetent, in solving crime including murder the greater the use of surveillance technology. Instead of sending teams of detectives to gather evidence and witnesses, and then going over all of it, they use questionable warrant requests, which are usually rubber stamped. They get all this “evidence,” and depend on it, while ignoring talking to people. Then there is the focus on “terrorist threats” and the War on (some) Drugs, which means sending in narks to spy on usually peaceful activists, ignoring the gangs and using asset forfeiture to seize the money and property of supposed drug dealers.

        All this activity is almost entirely focused on the poorer communities with the police also acting as the unofficial enforcers of the local elites using very select law and code enforcement.

        So, while my knowledge of modern British policing is almost nil, I suspect that they will become more like the American police; the American police have been converted from dealing with crime like murder into tax collectors(asset forfeitures, fines, and fees), elite and business enforcers or goons, and suppressers of community organizations with the various surveillance simply diverted to those functions, away from solving crime like murder, rape, and robbery.

        As it goes with the Americans being diverted from community service or solving crime to suppression and exploitation with their new toys, so too will the British police with their new toys; there will be more murders, rapes, and robberies with an increasing percentage unsolved, but greater suppression of activists and protestors.

        And those misidentifications are a feature, not a bug. Like with those misidentifications by the American drug dogs or false video identifications by the police AI, it gives the police an excuse to rummage through a person’s life. The goal is not to solve or prevent an actual violent crime against a citizen, but to give the police the chance to spy, “solve” a crime, or in the United States, just steal the money, homes, and vehicles of random people. The surveillance tech is also supplied and managed by private businesses, often friends of the chief or mayor.

        1. chuck roast

          Police incompetence in the US may become an increasingly regular thing. It seems that law enforcement were forewarned by family and aquaintances of the recent mass murderer in Lewiston, Maine. I recall that the head of the Maine Department of Public Safety…a primary actor in these events…was once the police chief in Portland. He was on record more than once saying that Portland, a relatively peaceful city, could not get enough competent applicants for the police force. He could well be the victim of this phenomenon.

          1. JBird4049

            The changes in the police have been happening for several decades and started with changes in policy.

  6. ambrit

    It is a truism in military circles that any new weapon will eventually be used.
    The UK Government has “shown the way” for the rest of the world in the field of “soft power authoritarianism.” That “way” is the adoption of a military mind set in domestic fields. With these developments, the UK Government has explicitly adopted the role of “Occupying Power” within it’s own borders. The primary function of any “Occupying Power” is to facilitate the exploitation without hindrance of the “occupied” territory and peoples within said territory. We have to ask ourselves; who do the “Organs of State Security” really serve?
    The police forces of the UK are reverting to the traditional definition of police forces through history; “The Agents of State Security.” The real struggle underlying all this is the struggle to control the definition of “The State.” Again, we must ask, who does “The State” truly serve? The pro-Palestianian Jewish protesters in New York made an essential point recently. Their motto being: “Not In Our Name.” This is an explicit repudiation of “The State” and it’s aims in this instance. Basically, protest in support of an alternative to the “Official Narrative.” Returning to our theme of the militarization of the Police Forces, we note that the essence of any functional military, as an organization, is blind obedience to orders. Governments would dearly love to impose such an ethos upon civil society. The struggle here is to stop this trend.
    It will be hard and bloody work. It always has been, for no Governing Elite voluntarily renounces the “power” that forms their source of authority.
    History has not ended. It just evolves, endlessly.

    1. begob

      Ah, for the days of the Skripal Affair, when Salisbury was shut down for the best part of two months without recourse even to the Civil Contingencies Act – too many signatures on bottom lines.

  7. Paul Art

    Ever since the good people of the UK cooperated like bobble heads to Keir Starmer making Corbyn walk the plank I lost all interest in that ‘only country in the World that is not semi-detached’ in the immortal words of Captain Peacock in Are you Being Served. You get the Democracy you deserve. I used to be an Anglophile and then a recovering Anglophile and these days positively an Anti Anglophile. No one can write like the English of course. I am biased though having been raised on a steady diet if Wodehouse and Alistair Maclean and Dickens not to mention the Bard. BTW these dats when I run through my once in a year rewatch of Yes Minister it occurs to me that Messrs Jay and Lynn could not have done a better job if they had started out with the objective of thoroughly impugning the reputation of the Civil Service. I wonder if that was indeed a hidden agenda there.

  8. Olivier

    @Nick Typo: it’s King Charles III, not Charles II: I doubt cameras were available at the coronation of the earlier monarch!

  9. Steed

    Thanks Nick, excellent post.
    I’m not surprised that the Government is trying to get the passport photo database added to the surveillance architecture, especially since it’s someone like Policing minister Chris Philp who seems to be doing the running for it.
    I first came across Philp earlier this year on a Newsnight interview. He was representing the Government across the table from RMT Union head Mick Lynch, with the odious Kirsty Wark letting Philp just waffle on and on. Lynch called Philp a liar at least 14 times to his face over the duration of the interview and Philp just sat there like a Sphinx repeating the same prepared BS government talking points. Not once did Philp feel the need to remonstrate or admonish Lynch for calling him a liar. I suppose consciously or sub- consciously, Philp knows what he is (I’d hazard a guess at psychopath) and couldn’t be arsed to argue to the contrary. With considerable bitterness, I have to say this country (UK) has the Government it deserves and its getting busy undoing all the social progress made since the end of the Second World war.

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