The fundamental bedrock of any free society is the right to privacy. Instances, where individuals were denied democracy, freedom of speech, and the sanctity of their private lives, mark the darkest chapters in human history.
Individuals who often repeat the refrain, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” frequently underappreciate and dismiss this right. This oversimplification yearns for a society of robotic conformity. In truth, in any free and thriving society, every one of us has something worth safeguarding – the privacy and honour of our personal and family lives, shielded from the scrutiny of the state. This is why we employ passwords on our phones, secure our doors with locks, and draw curtains over our windows.
As new technologies, such as AI, continue to advance, they offer optimism and potential for the future of healthcare, transportation, and communication. However, the introduction of new automated systems in the public sphere raises concerns regarding our privacy and, more broadly, our civil liberties.
This is the reason why I, along with 64 fellow parliamentarians from various political parties, are urging for an immediate halt to the utilization of live facial recognition surveillance in the United Kingdom.
This novel AI surveillance technology differs significantly from the CCTV systems scattered throughout our society in 2023. Our faces serve as unique personal identifiers, but live facial recognition cameras conduct real-time face scans and match them against images of individuals on “watch lists.” In this regard, this surveillance technology has the potential to transform us into mobile barcodes or, even more concerning, walking ID cards.
In a free society like the UK, fundamental principles should guide the use of surveillance. We should limit and balance surveillance, directing it toward specific targets and anchoring it in reasonable suspicion. Broadly applying surveillance to the entire population starts to endanger our fundamental freedoms.
Live facial recognition stands as an example of such technology, employed by law enforcement agencies and, to an increasing extent, private enterprises for the indiscriminate monitoring of crowds comprising innocent individuals. It is wholly unacceptable that the widespread adoption of this technology has occurred without any parliamentary consent or even a discussion in either House.
We are currently experiencing an authoritarian phase in our political landscape. Throughout the pandemic, I raised concerns about the gradual erosion of our freedoms. Once precedents are established, rolling back encroachments on our rights can prove to be a challenging task.
In the context of the right to protest, the government swiftly introduced disproportionately stringent new restrictions through the Public Order Act, succeeding the excessive limitations implemented during times of crisis.
Nevertheless, even in the face of the incremental tightening of constraints on our liberties, there are reasons for hope. Those of us who opposed the disproportionate idea of fitting entirely innocent protesters with ankle tags when they were labelled as “disruptive” successfully compelled the government to abandon these schemes. Common sense prevailed, securing a victory for privacy and the freedom of expression.
Those who value civil liberties can halt the escalation of restrictions, but it requires them to be both resolute and outspoken.
It is high time for the government to pay heed to those of us who have reservations about facial recognition surveillance. As the UK is progressively reevaluating its stance on AI and the societal risks it poses, the potential consequences for our civil liberties must be a prominent consideration, and this encompasses live facial recognition.