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King's Cross developers say facial recognition cameras 'ensure public safety', amid fears private companies are carrying out ID checks

Thousands of people's faces could be tracked by facial recognition technology used in King's Cross
Thousands of people's faces could be tracked by facial recognition technology used in King's Cross Credit: John Sturrock 

The developer of a 67-acre site in London’s King's Cross has defended its use of facial recognition technology as campaigners warned that private companies were increasingly conducting secret identity checks on the public.

Developer Argent insisted that the tool was used to "ensure public safety" and was one of "a number of detection and tracking methods".

But under data protection laws, firms must provide clear evidence that there is a need to record and use people's images.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, called it "the worst-case scenario for privacy".

"Huge areas of our capital have been sold off, privately policed, and are now being covered with Chinese-style surveillance.

"Private companies are asserting the right to monitor and secretly conduct identity checks on tens of thousands of us. What happens with our data is anyone's guess.”

She said the cameras were the high-tech equivalent of forcing members of the public to give their fingerprints to an unidentified private company.

Argent has recently developed the area, which houses Google's UK headquarters, aerospace manufacturer Bombardier, record label Universal Music Group and a series of restaurants, but it is not clear how many security cameras with the technology have been placed there.

A spokesperson for King's Cross said the cameras use "a number of detection and tracking methods, including facial recognition, but also have sophisticated systems in place to protect the privacy of the general public".

The move, first reported by the Financial Times, may be replicated at the developer's Canary Wharf site later this year.

Facial recognition works by transmitting images of people from a live camera feed and matching them to a database of photographs.

Hannah Couchman, policy and campaigns officer at human rights group Liberty, said use of the technology by private companies was a "disturbing expansion of mass surveillance that threatens our privacy and freedom of expression as we go about our everyday lives".

"There has been no transparency about how this tool is being deployed and who it is targeting, but it could violate the rights of the thousands of people who go to Kings Cross every day," she said. "This authoritarian surveillance tool has no place in a rights-respecting society."

Alan Woodward, privacy expert at the University of Surrey, warned that Britain is running out of time to set rules over the use of facial recognition.

"I’m seriously concerned that this data is being collected, albeit initially for very laudable reasons, but there is little if any legislation or regulation about how the data is used," he said. 

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioners' Office said: "Organisations wishing to automatically capture and use images of individuals going about their business in public spaces need to provide clear evidence to demonstrate it is strictly necessary and proportionate for the circumstances and that there is a legal basis for that use."

Facial recognition technology is increasingly used by other companies, stadiums, conferences and concert event organisers in the UK to monitor a crowd and pick out the people they determine to be troublemakers.