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Southend exchanges privacy for protection- without consent

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Unequivocally, all of us law-abiding citizens support the police.  However, this support doesn’t always come with an open book to take whatever action they want (or more accurately, what the government wants) in the name of protection. And so it is that I turn to the recent and surprising announcement of the introduction of Facial Recognition Technology in Southend.


Communication Lacking


It seems I have been remiss in my duty to follow important changes to the law, and have missed all the communications that were published stating that this was going to happen.


I first heard of it reading about it in the Echo and that it was coming to Southend. A second article was published showcasing how they managed to catch a suspected rapist from Chelmsford that was committed on the Wednesday, as well as catching another suspect in connection to a robbery. Both happened to be walking down Southend High Street during the time the roaming mobile van was being used.


Because I am so late in the day, I have so many basic, and most certainly, naive questions that I would have liked to ask before they went ahead with the 'trial' in our City:


  • If the police already know a person is a suspect, why would a van with a quite obvious camera attached be required to catch them?  

  • Are they deploying the van everywhere the suspect goes in the off-chance they will catch them in the act?  

  • At what point of being a suspect does this van get deployed?

  • Why do they need facial recognition technology to catch someone that has already been facially recognised? Isn't the reason they are following them because they have already identified who they are?

  • How does the technology exclude the faces of all those that are not suspects?  Or does it?

  • At the moment a mobile van is being used, but how long before every public space is covered at all times?

  • How long before every conversation is recorded? 

  • Where was the public consultation? Or the debate?

  • How much does this technology cost?

  • What is this technology doing that the police cannot already do to make an arrest?


Let's assume these questions miss the point entirely, still, I would have preferred if they were answered. The council are currently running a consultation about the election cycle. Why is that deemed more important than the argument between privacy and protection? Admittedly, the council have no control in this area, but the point is about having a consultation, not which organisation is responsible for launching it.


There is 'guidance' from the College of Policing how it is carried out as well as engagement with the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner to 'hold the police to account'. One arbitrator and not law as i read it.


I am sure I could be persuaded, but I would have liked the opportunity. To have this come relatively out of the blue and us be happy is optimistic on the government's part. So, my first criticism is the lack of communication from the start of the idea to the introduction. Just think of all the money that has been invested already without our say so. Should we really be relying on our local paper to take us through the journey that may fundamentally change our lives?


Aside from that I have deep concerns about the principle of this.  Concerns that I am now aware are not shared by some in the name of protection and feeling safer. 


What makes you a 'Suspect'?


You only need to be a ‘suspect’ for your face to be captured and stored.  So, what kind of crimes make you a ‘suspect’?


We associate a ‘suspect’ to be a criminal such as a terrorist, murderer, rapist or drug dealer where in fact a suspect can be anyone suspected of committing a crime.  It has been reported that only matters of ‘high harm’ offences in this exercise will result in people being put on the ‘watch list’, but how long will it be until they turn to other crimes?


Speeding. Bunking a train. Jaywalking. Going through a red light. Being drunk on the street. Not paying for supermarket carrier bags. Parking on the pavement. Parking on double yellow lines. Littering!


These petty crimes and more are likely to have been committed by a quite a number of people, and then suddenly we have a position that most people’s faces are on the database.  Of course, you could argue don’t break the law!  But, in my view, someone who steels a plastic bag from Tesco should not be put on a watch list!


As absurd as this is, none of us have any idea what the long term use and expansion of this technology will be and by nonchalantly applauding this through we risk, ourselves, one day falling foul of this technology.  Think about all the things you have done in your life and question whether you have ever broken the law. This could easily turn on you.


This is the start, but what will be the end?  How far will they go? There is no clarity provided. Will there be a list enshrined in law that permits which broken laws equal invasion of privacy? Is there one already?  I suspect not, which means every law is up for grabs. The rules will no doubt change over time and they then can use a harder line on everyone, not just the terrorists, murderers and rapists.


It does not make sense to introduce a technology that is able to monitor people 100% of the time (potentially) when 99% of people are law-abiding citizens 99% of the time! As you’re walking the dog; playing with the grandchildren; taking your daily exercise; lying on the beach; taking a drive; and so on.


As it happens, because I have weeks between starting this piece and its publication, a third article has appeared in the Echo that reports a shoplifter has been caught using this technology. Shoplifting, although wrong, is definitely not 'high harm'. This is a rapid downgrade and one I had feared may happen.


Flippancy


If you have nothing to hide then you the have nothing to worry about’, reads the Police statement.


This is a heavy-handed and flippant remark. It feels autocratic and lacks any attempt at balance. I might have been more inclined to go along with it had they gone with something like: after taking careful consideration of the very real issues surrounding personal privacy, we are introducing this technology to reduce serious crime alongside a set of laws that ensure privacy is valued, respected and ensured.


The argument of not worrying if you have nothing to hide forces anyone who is against it to raise suspicion upon themselves, because why would they take that view?  The question would be: are you a criminal then?   It corners people into agreement. It’s a winning position and a hard argument to address. Even now, with my lengthy article against this, you may suspect that I, in fact, have committed some kind of crime!  Where in actual fact, I am dismayed to see how far down the road we are to tearing away our rights to privacy and therefore freedom.


Privacy and Protection


Do you trust all the people who will exercise this power such as the politicians?  If not, then why would we give them even more power to invade our lives and control what we do?


This is done under the guise of ‘protection’, which is the most powerful and abused term to push through a policy in relation to invading privacy and our rights generally. But who is it protecting? Us from each other? Do you feel unsafe with everyone you associate with or strangers on the street?  Do you feel that unprotected to such a degree that you would give up your rights to be free to do as you wish without a drone on your back?


The laws today are generally acceptable to society, but what if they bring in a law such as another lockdown? Where you are a criminal just for taking a walk. It’s happened and could easily happen again.


There already exists every tracking technology going to catch criminals.  Your computer, mobile phone, CCTV, etc.  How do you think they bring them to trial now? How many cases have had enough evidence to get to court but were quashed because they were unable to recognise the face?


In Conclusion


I understand those that support this.  Protection is vital.  If every face was stored in a database and we were tracked wherever we went then crime would likely disappear.  A good thing, right? Why would anyone not want that?  Giving up privacy for protection is fair game for many.  Trouble is, your need for protection is overriding my right to be and feel free. You are encroaching in a life-changing way and I for one am unwilling to settle with this exchange.


I have not personally consented to my face being captured and stored in a database in this way, and I would like to know just how the government managed to pass this law. Because as far as I am concerned this is unlawful, and it should be them that would get to enjoy having a van filming their every move and their face splashed across the police database. Perhaps it is a good idea after all!?


Southend Confelicity have now held our debate about this subject and from this Project Southchurch have now arranged a Q&A at their next meeting with the police. We are very grateful for this and I look forward to answers to my current concerns.

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