Lewisham and Catford shoppers latest to get the Facial Recognition treatment

By Robert Firth, Local Democracy Reporter

It is becoming increasingly common – but is proving no less disturbing for the uninitiated. Facial Recognition to capture criminals is spreading its tentacles.

Shoppers in Lewisham and Catford are the latest to have had their faces scanned and compared with a database of suspected felons.

Police set up a van with facial recognition cameras in both areas on Tuesday afternoon.

The Met claims the technology helps officers to fight crime by identifying criminals. But privacy campaigners have branded the cameras ‘intrusive’ and ineffective compared to other policing methods.

In Lewisham town centre, a van with the technology was parked in the high street with approximately eight officers stationed in pairs around it. Some members of the public paused to read signs put up by police near the vehicle explaining the cameras. Others asked officers what was happening.

One passer-by, Lewisham resident Loveday Cole, seemed unsure what to make of the cameras. He said: “It’s a bit weird. Fair enough they’re using it to catch criminals and we don’t want criminals on the street, but it looks a bit weird. When people get used to it, it’s not too much of a problem.

“If you’re not a criminal, you don’t have to worry about it. It’s only if you’re a criminal, you would be thinking oh my gosh. Some people are going to feel like it’s invading their human rights, too.”

But Lau Ciocan, who also lives in Lewisham, said he was concerned about the technology being biased and the security of data held by the cameras.

A street sign alerting passers-by to the operation (Picture: Robert Firth)

The 41-year-old said: “You have to make sure that this technology is not biased. If you have a biased pool, it cannot recognise black people’s faces and it might misidentify. How can we ensure that bias does not get propagated? How do we ensure the security of it so it’s not hacked?”

He added: “Do they run tests [of facial recognition cameras] in other boroughs that are [more] white? Do they do it in non-black boroughs? What about places like Chelsea or Richmond? That’s my concern.”

The Met has previously used facial recognition cameras in Croydon and Tooting in Wandsworth. Last week the force made 17 arrests following the deployment of the technology in South London.

Liam Shrivastava, chairman of Lewisham council’s safer stronger communities committee, which makes recommendations about police, crime and equalities, said the deployment of cameras was ‘deeply concerning’,

Writing on X, Cllr Shrivastava said: “[Live facial recognition] has serious racial bias and privacy implications, is legally dubious and has never been debated in parliament. Local consultation has been minimal, with elected members notified just two weeks ago.”

Madeleine Stone from Big Brother Watch said: “Everyone wants dangerous criminals off the street, but papering over the cracks of a creaking policing system with intrusive and Orwellian surveillance technology is not the solution.

“Rather than actively pursuing people who pose a risk to the public, police officers are relying on chance and hoping that wanted people happen to walk in front of a police camera.”

Lewisham council said it was ‘carefully monitoring’ the use of facial recognition cameras and was in conversation with the Met and other local councils where the technology is being rolled out.

Lindsey Chiswick, who is responsible for the technology at the Met said: “Live facial recognition is a precise crime fighting tool which helps officers identify criminals. Where there is no match, all images are immediately and automatically destroyed.”

Pictured top: Lewisham resident Loveday Cole in front of the FR van (Picture: Robert Firth)

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