The UK currently have 6 million CCTV cameras installed across the country, amounting to about one for every ten people who live in Britain, making it one of the most surveilled countries in the world.
A new system is being proposed which will allow real-time face recognition to be integrated with existing CCTV cameras which will be linked to a central database populated with ‘undesirables’. If the system matches a person in this database, they are immediately flagged for a potential pre-crime violation.
Facewatch has been updated so that it can be integrated with real-time face recognition systems, such as NEC’s NeoFace. Where previously a member of staff had to keep an eye out for people on the crowdsourced Facewatch watch list, now the system can automatically tell you if someone on the watch list has just entered the premises. A member of staff can then keep an eye on that person, or ask them politely (or not) to leave.
In the film Minority Report, people are rounded up by the Precrime police agency before they actually commit the crime. In the movie this pre-crime information is provided by “pre-cognition” savants floating in a goopy nutrient bath who can apparently see the future.
Replace those gibbering pre-cog mutants with Facewatch, and you pretty much have the same thing: a system that automatically tars people with a criminal brush, irrespective of dozens of important variables.
Facewatch lets you share “subjects of interest” with other Facewatch users even if they haven’t been convicted. If you look at the shop owner in a funny way, or ask for the service charge to be removed from your bill, you might find yourself added to the “subject of interest” list.
Or what if you have been convicted, but have since come out of the criminal justice system a reformed person? Or what if you were convicted of some completely unrelated crime, but still find yourself stalked by a security guard every time you visit Tesco? Or what if you ended up on the watch list because you walked past a McDonald’s during a democratic protest against the government or police, and then find yourself ushered out of every shop, restaurant, and pub you visit henceforth?
Pre-crime is potentially an awesome idea with the right safeguards, but to put that kind of power in the hands of private citizens and without significant oversight and code review is quite insane and open to egregious abuse.
The creator of Facewatch, Simon Gordon, told the BBC that the effectiveness of face recognition systems is increasing, while the price of such systems is falling rapidly. “Probably by the end of next year, it will be almost like having a mobile phone,” he said. Jolly good.