Police plans to use facial recognition software at Notting Hill Carnival have prompted a strong rebuke from civil liberties campaigners.

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) recently announced that it would use real-time biometric scanning at Carnival this year to try to identify known criminals, suspects and troublemakers. Some police forces already use the technology to check CCTV and social media images. It was trialled at Notting Hill Carnival last year, but failed to pick out any suspects.

On Wednesday, civil rights groups, including Liberty, the Race Equality Foundation, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, Black Lives Matter UK and the Institute of Race Relations, jointly signed an open letter calling on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to scrap the scheme.

Campaigners are worried about the threat to individual freedom represented by UK police forces’ combined database of 16 million facial profiles – almost a quarter of the country’s population.

The government has not published its biometrics strategy and there are no laws, rules or legal oversight for use of the technology. The letter states: “The use of automatic facial recognition in public spaces presents such a significant interference with the right to private life that its use is likely to constitute a breach of the Human Rights Act.”

There is serious concern that the face-scanning technology will be used disproportionately on people of African and Caribbean origin. The letter notes: “The choice to use Notting Hill Carnival to trial, yet again, this invasive technology unfairly targets the community that Carnival exists to celebrate. There has been a pattern of black deaths following police contact that have caused considerable concern about discriminatory policing. This will only exacerbate concerns about abuses of state power.”

Without a major move against the technology by Parliament, however, it seems unlikely that the MPS will voluntarily give up the technology. The force has used Notting Hill Carnival for decades as a testbed for public surveillance and crowd control techniques. Terrorism incidents, such as Thursday’s Barcelona attack, provide ideal ‘cover’ for introduction of what many observers fear are repressive technologies and tactics.

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