Revealed: UK MPs “asleep at the wheel” as government ramps up facial recognition technology

Privacy International (PI) has just published new research into UK Members of Parliament’s (startling lack of) knowledge on the use of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) in public spaces, even within their own constituencies. 

Press release
Woman in supermarket with face covered in a barcode, being scanned by a camera

9 November 2023 - Privacy International (PI) has just published new research into UK Members of Parliament’s (startling lack of) knowledge on the use of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) in public spaces, even within their own constituencies. Read the research published here in full: "MPs Asleep at the Wheel as Facial Recognition Technology Spells The End of Privacy in Public".

  • PI has recently conducted a survey of 114 UK MPs through YouGov. Published this morning, the results are seriously concerning and reveal that the majority of MPs are sorely ill-informed about FRT in the UK, despite new government plans to expand its use and the grave threat that the technology poses to human rights.
  • Our survey results reveal that the majority of MPs are seriously ill-informed about the use of FRT in the UK:
    • Over two thirds do not know whether it is being deployed in their own constituencies;
    • Most MPs do not know that there is no specific UK law pertaining to FRT, and many are unaware of the threats the technology poses to human rights.
    • Whilst most MPs are uninformed about FRT, those who understand the threats it poses expressed concerns in response to our survey and some are demanding action. Indeed, recently 38 MPs called for an "immediate stop" to the use of live FRT.
  • PI is now calling on the public to take action in light of these revelations by writing to their MPs in order to demand that they tell them whether or not FRT is being used in their local area.
  • These revelations come as Policing Minister Chris Philp recently called on UK police to double the use of FRT, and follow his controversial statement at the Conservative Party conference that he plans to integrate police databases with national databases including the passport office. They also come in the wake of an announcement by the Home Office and Ministry of Defence that they are looking to ramp up the use of FRT which they consider to be “an increasingly important capability for law enforcement and the Home Office”. Soonafter, The Times reported a government project which will see police forces forming financial partnerships with supermarkets to roll out FRT in stores across the country.

The escalating use of this flawed and pernicious biometric technology in public spaces paves the way for dystopian mass surveillance and seriously undermines human rights, particularly the right to privacy, whilst threatening other fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly and expression. Whilst around the world, the use of FRT is facing increasing restrictions or outright bans, the UK is heading in the opposite direction and is seriously behind the curve. Read our long read to see the full analysis.

Josie Thum, Advocacy Officer at Privacy International said:
“While facial recognition tech is already being rapidly rolled out in public spaces - on our High Streets, and in shops, bars and at protests - it’s very worrying that your MP probably doesn’t know if FRT is being deployed in your constituency. And it’s very worrying that most MPs we surveyed seem to think that there is already FRT legislation. Let’s be clear, there isn’t. This means that a highly intrusive surveillance technology is becoming embedded and normalised in our supposedly democratic society, without any proper safeguards or protections. Our MPs are asleep at the wheel, which undermines everyone’s privacy in public, and they need to wake up. We must act before it is too late. This is why we’ve launched a new campaign, so that members of the public can hold their MP to account about deployment of FRT on our High Streets”.

Notes for editors:

  1. PI is happy to offer interviews, comment and analysis as well as anonymised comments from MPs obtained as part of the survey.
  2. We can also offer a statistical breakdown of our research in full with political party affiliation data.