The UK government’s love affair with tech-enabled surveillance knows no bounds.
[This story is a little dated, having first surfaced in the Financial Times on Monday. But on that day I decided to write a piece on what I thought was an even more pressing issue: Italy’s “no jab, no job” vaccine mandate, which threatens to render millions of people unemployed. But this story from the UK is such an outrageous example of creeping surveillance in the so-called “liberal” West that I thought it still worth sharing]
As the pink paper reported, nine schools in the Scottish region of North Ayrshire have started using facial recognition systems as a form of contactless payment in cashless canteens (cafeterias in the US). The BBC later reported that two schools in England were also piloting the system. At a time when many schools in the UK are facing crippling budget cuts, this speaks volumes about the local councils’ educational priorities.
In response to the revelations, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued a weak-tea statement, encouraging schools to “carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so.”
A statement from children’s digital rights group Defend Digital Me packed a meatier punch: “Biometrics should never be used for children in educational settings — no ifs, no buts. It’s not necessary. Just ban it.”
Normalising Biometric Surveillance
In its defence, North Ayrshire council said it had sent out a flyer explaining the technology to the children’s parents ahead of the enrollment. That flyer included this lovely little nugget: “With Facial Recognition, pupils simply select their meal, look at the camera and go, making for a faster lunch service whilst removing any contact at the point of sale.”
Apparently a whopping 97% of the school children or their parents consented to be enrolled in the pilot scheme. It seems that the council believes that preteens and teenagers are adequately equipped to decide for themselves whether or not the installation of facial recognition technologies in the school canteen infringes their privacy.
Similar facial recognition systems have been in use in the United States for years, though usually as a security measure. In the case of the schools in Ayrshire, this is all about ease, speed and efficiency. Or so we are told.
“It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till,” said David Swanston, the managing director of CRB Cunninghams, the company that provided the system. Swanston added that the average transaction time using the system was five seconds per pupil: “In a secondary school you have about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale”.
One wonders how school cafeterias were able to cope with demand for so long without digital and biometric payment technologies. But critics argue that these pilot schemes have a much darker purpose than expediting school lunch queues; they are about conditioning children to the widespread use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies.
“It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane,” Silkie Carlo of the UK campaign group Big Brother Watch told the FT. “You don’t need to resort to airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch.”
The UK has on average 1 surveillance camera for every 6.5 people, according to a 2019 analysis by IHS Markit. That’s more than any other country in the world, except for China, which has 1 camera per 4.1 people, the US (4.6) and Taiwan (5.5). This data was featured in a 2019 CBS article warning about the US’ increasing adoption of surveillance technologies:
“During the past few years, coverage of the surveillance market has focused heavily on China’s massive deployments of cameras and artificial intelligence technology. What’s received far less attention is the high level of penetration of surveillance cameras in the United States,” report author Oliver Philippou, an analyst at IHS Markit, said in a note. ‘With the U.S. nearly on par with China in terms of camera penetration, future debate over mass surveillance is likely to concern America as much as China.’”
Like their US counterparts, UK authorities have been trialling live facial recognition (LFR) surveillance in public places for several years. Many of the trials were monitored by activist group Big Brother Watch. In a 2019 article for Yahoo, Silkie Carlo wrote that watching “these live facial recognition trials is to watch your civil liberties slip away before your eyes.”
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