From CCTV to Biometrics: The Privacy Factor

The proliferation of biometric technologies is growing in both public and private domains. Advancements in biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, voice authentication, fingerprint, or iris scanning, are driving increased affordability, sophistication, and precision for both security and policing. Consequently, these technologies are embedding themselves seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life, emerging as integral components of security and surveillance frameworks.

Simon Alderson, CEO of First Response Group, examines how many of the traditional surveillance systems are gradually being replaced by technology and automation, with biometrics and in particular facial recognition being at the forefront alongside continued discussions about privacy.

Modern surveillance technology systems increasingly play a vital role in supporting security officers by providing granular level evidence that proves crucial in investigations, legal proceedings, and insurance claims. The integration of automation not only enhances operational efficiency but also results in cost savings for security measures.

The landscape of surveillance and monitoring has undergone profound transformation with the advent of digital technologies. Traditional systems, once solely reliant on human vigilance, are now being replaced by advanced tools and automation. One facet of this is biometrics. This shift not only optimises resource allocation but is transforming the efficiency and capabilities of surveillance as a whole. The march to automation however doesn’t come without its own social challenges and implications.

A report published by the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimates that the total number of CCTV cameras in the UK stands at somewhere between 4 million and 6 million. That’s around 7.5 cameras for every 100 people in the country – the third-highest number on the planet behind the US and China. CCTV and surveillance systems are now firmly entrenched as part of the security landscape in the UK, but as new technologies such as facial recognition take their place, so too do safeguards on privacy.

Security personnel frequently encounter situations demanding documentation and evidence gathering. Surveillance technology proves invaluable in this context, as high-definition cameras equipped with facial recognition, capture detailed footage that can serve as vital evidence in investigations. This not only aids in identifying wrongdoers but also safeguards security officers from erroneous scrutiny or worse still accusations. However, facial recognition is not the only constituent in biometric identification.

Biometrics refers to a diverse set of technologies harnessing probabilistic matching to identify individuals based on their unique physiological features (such as fingerprints, iris, face, or hand geometry) or behavioural attributes (such as gait, signature, or in some settings, even their keystroke pattern). These characteristics are generally exclusive to an individual person, making them more effective and reliable for identity verification compared to methods like knowledge-based verification (e.g., passwords or PINs) or token-based systems (e.g., ID cards or licenses).

The use of behavioural biometrics is on the rise, especially for passive authentication, providing an important additional layer of security. This involves measuring and analysing patterns in an individual’s movements, behaviours, or physical interactions. Examples range from how someone handles a device, such as a mobile phone, to more nuanced characteristics, such as their finger taps on a screen, or the force applied. Even linguistic aspects, like word choice, grammar, and sentence structure, can serve as measurable biometric characteristics.

Now clearly, this level of biometric data and analysis is a long way from being commonplace in the professional security industry, at least today, being much more the preserve of counter-terror or national security operations, but it does serve to highlight the degree to which biometrics are becoming ever more embedded in  the process of identification, and it may well be that general security gradually introduces more of these systems as criminals and illegal groups wise up to the more robust defences they need to breech.

A notable advantage is that biometric traits are less prone to being shared, lost, or duplicated compared to passwords or tokens. Consequently, biometrics find increasing applications in identity management, particularly for authentication purposes—to ensure that a person is genuinely who they claim to be.

The rise of biometric technology introduces both opportunities and challenges. While it clearly aids in the identification and apprehension of criminals, concerns about privacy and security are never far away. Recent trials and deployments by UK Police, as I will go on to illustrate, highlight the controversy surrounding live facial recognition technology. The potential for abuse and infringement on individual rights underscores the importance of transparency, industry-accepted protocols, and a generally more holistic approach to surveillance implementation.

Because of these privacy concerns, we are now seeing the introduction of privacy-enhancing technologies. Techniques such as anonymisation, video-masking, and encryption aim to preserve individual privacy without compromising surveillance functionality.

Facial recognition surveillance is rapidly advancing. As recently as October this year (2023), Essex Police reported three arrests, including one for rape, during their first trial using live facial recognition (LFR) technology. Similarly, in the same month, The Metropolitan Police utilised live facial recognition technology for the first time at a Premier League football match, resulting in three arrests, including one for a breach of a football banning order. Whilst this technology is clearly effective at apprehending serious offenders, privacy advocates, like Big Brother Watch, criticise it as ‘dangerously authoritarian’ and a threat to personal privacy and freedoms. Despite privacy concerns and criticisms from campaigners, minister of state for crime, policing & fire, Chris Philp, defended the technology’s ability to assist police in identifying serious criminals, thus freeing up resources.

While facial recognition technology, especially in video surveillance, faces scrutiny due to potential impacts on privacy and security, its deployment is transforming how CCTV video surveillance is utilised in security and policing. In Europe, the European Union (EU) is developing an international facial recognition system. Concerns surrounding surveillance primarily revolve around how the technology is programmed and utilised.

Addressing these concerns may be possible through increased transparency and the establishment of industry-accepted procedures and policies. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognise that facial recognition is not the sole solution for implementing surveillance technology. It must be integrated in combination with other technologies and procedures to enhance security, protect lives, and preserve individual rights and privacy.

As biometrics permeate society and the systems it uses, including within security and policing, organisations must offer clear, user-friendly privacy policies to build trust between those managing data and those it pertains to. Collaboration among industry players and their representative bodies, policymakers, and privacy advocates is crucial in the responsible treatment of biometric data. Together, they should be able to establish standards which balance technological progress with individual rights.

In conclusion, while biometric data holds significant potential for improving identification and security, it requires careful handling. Upholding privacy, implementing robust security, and addressing ethical concerns are paramount. Adherence to legal frameworks, stringent security measures, and transparency can help strike a balance between the advantages of biometric data and safeguarding individual rights. By adopting a comprehensive approach to privacy, security, and ethics, along with user control and education, it should be possible to embed responsible biometric policies and deployment in countering the impact of increasingly digitally savvy criminals and would- be law-breakers.

First Response Group has developed a report on the technological innovations taking place across the security sector entitled ‘Technology Innovation in Security’. It can be viewed and downloaded for free here

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About the Author: Michael O'Sullivan