Face Off: The Invisible Enemy

No matter how often we are up in arms, there is one topic on which we routinely turn our backs.

All the emotional charge firing online; all that indignation induced by newspaper headlines… it seems to completely flatline at the merest mention of privacy.

I am fascinated by this apathy. I study it with the dedication of a schoolkid hoping for a scholarship. But it’s one of those elusive, slippery problems; you think you’re about to close in on it, and somehow it still slithers out of your hands. There are too many, densely interacting answers to the question of why we don’t make privacy a priority. ‘I’ve got bigger fish to fry’, some say. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’, say others. From ‘I can’t be bothered’, to ‘I don’t care’, to ‘We can’t do anything about it anyway.’ And the ultimate scoff, ‘You must be really self-involved if you think anyone wants to spy on you!’

‘I can’t be bothered’, to ‘I don’t care’, to ‘We can’t do anything about it anyway.’

So, I decided to speak to Silkie Carlo, the CEO of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties campaign group. Their mission is to reclaim privacy and defend freedoms at a time when invasive new technologies are being created faster than we can monitor them. I thought her professional knowledge might get somebody’s blood boiling. It certainly worked for me. 

‘There is a general sense that if it’s got an “i” in front of it, or if it’s “smart”, then somehow its progressive,’ Silkie tells me. ‘This is why the debate around facial recognition is so important. It’s the first time the West has had a major reckoning. It’s disturbed the narrative that new tech is always a step forward. It’s not.’

Facial recognition is just one of the fights Big Brother Watch has on, but it’s a crucial one. Although fingerprints are unique to every person, our face is more exposed, and visible from a distance. It’s an obvious identity marker that we can’t hide easily, and both police and private companies in the UK have been taking advantage of this by quietly rolling out facial recognition surveillance cameras. 

Live facial recognition has been found, for instance, in several Southern Co-operative supermarkets, where customer’s faces are scanned against a watchlist of undesirable people. You don’t have to be a criminal to be targeted in this way, the Southern Co-op merely decides, according to their own shadowy criteria, to label you a ‘person of interest’.

Photograph from Lewis Bush's series 'Metropole'

‘The police initially started using it at Notting Hill Carnival. They thought no one was going to complain.’ Silkie explains. ‘I went into the police van and watched it in action for about five minutes and I saw three misidentifications. The real number of misidentifications is even higher, it’s phenomenally bad. That’s when our campaign started. There are two police forces who principally use it, and that remains the case today. They are the South Wales police and the London Met police.’

To laymen like myself, Apple’s rollout of face ID is often remembered as an exciting new frontier in tech, and the first time we really saw its mass application. Not many of us immediately correlate commercial gimmicks with the more sinister machinations of government. For that reason, it ends up being a good blind: let a trendy company normalise a technology, then repurpose it for more questionable use. 

A quick Google search on facial recognition will mostly bring up blogs gushing about how clever it is… and making excuses for its poor accuracy. Most worryingly, many of these pages insist that for facial recognition to get better it needs to be deployed on a mass scale, so it can log more faces. But what about the unknowing public whose biometric data is being sacrificed in this exercise?

‘That’s when you see the impact and who’s affected, and I do have to say it’s disproportionally young black men, which is a realism for London policing in general,’ Silkie says. ‘I’m also seeing children in school uniforms getting stopped and made to show identification – I mean they don’t even have ID they’re so young, but they have to prove their innocence, prove they’re not the person the police say they are.’ 

‘The police say they only use it to search for people wanted for serious crime. The last time we saw them, they said they’d managed to find someone who was wanted for a road traffic offence. Our definitions of “serious crime” definitely don’t match.’

When Silkie continues with, ‘of all the matches made, we found 87% were false positives,’ I begin to wonder why police are wasting their time and, presumably, mountains of taxpayers’ money, on expensive equipment that is virtually useless. In general, facial recognition and other surveillance technologies are shown to enable more precise discrimination. This should be more than a passing cause for concern. London is the most surveilled city in the world after Beijing, and proportionally to population size, the UK has as many surveillance cameras as China.

As Silkie points out in a roundtable discussion, these are forms of control that upset us when we look at other countries, perceiving censorship and infringements of human rights. Yet we close our eyes to it on home turf.  

The ethnic persecution of the Uyghur Muslims, happening right now in China, is facilitated by this kind of technology. There are people currently detained in concentration camps. ‘When do we start to feel it here?’ She continues. ‘Could there be somebody who gets into power who uses this extraordinary architecture for evil?’

Could there be somebody who gets into power who uses this extraordinary architecture for evil?

There are other, Orwellian constructions attempting to take root. Big Brother Watch is also campaigning against PimEyes, a company that allows anyone with a subscription to search people’s identities by uploading a picture of their face. In practice, this means anyone in the street could take a photo of a man or woman and find out sensitive information like where they work, or where they live. Big Brother Watch dubbed them ‘stalkerware’. 

Last autumn they published a ground-breaking investigation titled, ‘The Streets Are Watching – How Billboards Are Spying on You’, which demonstrated how advertising firms use a combination of phone tracking and facial detection to create hyper-targeted billboards.

Photograph from Lewis Bush's series 'Metropole'

Another of their campaigns, #BanHikvision, is equally urgent. Featured on Channel 4 News and other major outlets, Big Brother Watch uncovered the use of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance technology (which includes behaviour analysis) across Britain, including in 57% of secondary schools in England, six out of ten NHS Trusts, and 73% of councils in the UK. These CCTV companies are owned by the Chinese state and our country is covered in them. 

These products are being used to facilitate persecution of the Uyghurs, from forced sterilisation to violent torture. Not only are our taxes funding companies implicated in human genocide, but they could well be compromised. Would you want the Chinese state to have access to your child’s biometric data, just because schools claim it’s more ‘convenient’ to use face ID instead of keycards? I stand with Big Brother Watch when they say, ‘the private sector is out of control’.

Would you want the Chinese state to have access to your child’s biometric data?

These topics are heavy, and I can see the temptation to bury our heads in the sand. We don’t always like to face unpleasantness head-on. 

I ask Silkie how she copes with such a tough job, day in, day out. ‘We’ve got a really great team, and we look after each other,’ she replies. ‘I think having supporters and knowing people value our work also counts for a lot. But everyone gets to a point where they just need a break. It’s very hard.’ 

Big Brother Watch is a non-profit of just five people, but they get a lot done. Aside from Silkie (who established the legal defence fund for Edward Snowden), there are two legal policy officers who track policy through parliament and lobby on bills; a head of research and investigations who does mass freedom of information requests; and a digital comms staffer, who works on continually getting the word out. They don’t just raise the alarm either, they get MPs to sign critical petitions, apply pressure for harmful bills to be withdrawn, and launch legal investigations. 

Their findings make it difficult to deny the importance of the issue… regardless of how addicted we are to technology and its exciting gadgets. Though none of this means we have to change the way we live. As an easy step, next time someone mentions privacy, tell them about Big Brother Watch. That dismissive ‘Whatever’ with the eyeroll could be turned into an awakening. We just need to be aware of what’s going on, and make sure we’re behind the people who are on the frontlines.

Big Brother Watch is entirely dependent on the support of the public. Your donations directly contribute to the strength of their campaigns for a free future. Donate today: bigbrotherwatch.org.uk

All images from Lewis Bush’s series Metropole (2014 – 2018) published by Overlapse Books. His new project, Depravity’s Rainbow, is available from his website www.lewisbush.com

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