The decision is a major development in the use of a technology that has set off a worldwide debate about the balance between security and privacy. Police departments contend that the software gives them a way to catch criminals who may otherwise avoid detection. Critics say the technology is an invasion of privacy, has spotty accuracy and is being introduced without adequate public discussion.
Britain has been at the forefront of the debate. In a country with a history of terrorist attacks, police surveillance has traditionally been more accepted than in other Western countries. Closed circuit television cameras line the streets.
The technology London will deploy goes beyond many of the facial recognition systems used elsewhere, which match a photo against a database to identify a person. The new tools use software that can immediately identify people on a police watch list as soon as they are filmed on a video camera.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that 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.”
London has faced several terror attacks, and seen an increase in crime, in recent years. In November, the police shot and killed a man wearing a fake bomb on London Bridge, after two people were fatally stabbed. The police called the attack a terror incident. In 2017, another stabbing attack left eight dead and dozens wounded. Knife crime in England and Wales rose to a record high in the first nine months of last year, according to government statistics.
“Every day, our police officers are briefed about suspects they should look out for,” Nick Ephgrave, assistant commissioner of the police department, said in the statement. Live facial recognition, he said, “improves the effectiveness of this tactic.”
“As a modern police force, I believe that we have a duty to use new technologies to keep people safe in London,” he added.
Facial recognition, already widespread in China, is gaining traction in Western countries. Many cities and police departments, like the New York Police Department, use technology comparing photos and other static images against a database of mug shots. An investigation by The New York Times this month found that more than 600 law enforcement agencies are using a facial recognition system by the company Clearview AI.
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