London’s police department said on Friday that it would begin using facial recognition technology in the city to identify people in real time, becoming one of the largest Western police forces to deploy software that has been criticized for its questionable effectiveness and violation of privacy.
The Metropolitan Police provided few details about when and where the technology would be used. In a statement, the department said the software would help “tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and help protect the vulnerable.”
The decision comes amid a worldwide debate about the use of facial recognition systems. Police departments contend that the software gives them a technological edge to catch criminals. Critics say the technology is an invasion of privacy and is being rolled out without adequate public debate.
In Britain, a judge ruled last year that police departments could use the technology without violating privacy or human rights, a case that is under appeal. The government’s top privacy regulator has raised concerns about the use of the technology, as did an independent report of a trial use by the Metropolitan Police.
The technology London plans to deploy goes beyond many of the facial recognition systems already in use, which match a photo against a database. The new systems attempt to identify people on a police watch list with security cameras in real time to enable officers to stop them in the specific location.
“Every day, our police officers are briefed about suspects they should look out for,” Nick Ephgrave, assistant commissioner of the police department, said in a statement. Live facial recognition, he said, “improves the effectiveness of this tact.”
“As a modern police force, I believe that we have a duty to use new technologies to keep people safe in London,” he added.
Already widespread in China, London’s announcement shows how the technology is gaining traction in Western countries. According to researchers at Georgetown University, cities including New York, Chicago, Detroit and Washington are using or have piloted the use of the technology.
Privacy groups immediately criticized London’s decision and vowed to take legal action to try to stop its deployment.
“This decision represents an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the U.K.,” said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a London-based group that has been fighting the use of facial recognition. “This is a breathtaking assault on our rights and we will challenge it.”