Met police to use facial recognition software at Notting Hill carnival

Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent
The Notting Hill carnival is the biggest annual public order test for the Metropolitan police. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Police will use facial recognition software to scan the faces of tens of thousands of revellers at this year’s Notting Hill carnival even though civil liberties groups believe such an action would be discriminatory.

The Metropolitan police has described the planned deployment as a pilot project intended to look for suspected troublemakers to keep those attending safe.

But critics say the use of real-time biometric tracking has no basis in law and that the plan to deploy it during the carnival is institutionally racist, as it targets Britain’s main annual African-Caribbean celebration.

The Notting Hill carnival is the biggest annual public order test for the Met, attracting crowds of up to 1 million people. Police at the two-day west London event will use the facial recognition system and match faces in the crowd against databases of people they suspect will cause trouble, comparing them with images of people previously arrested or under bail conditions to keep away from the event.

Last year’s carnival led to 45 officers being assaulted and eight were spat at, requiring them to take medication in case of infection. There were also 454 arrests, the highest number in a decade.

In a statement explaining its plans, the Met said: “The technology involves the use of overt cameras which scan the faces of those passing by and flag up potential matches against a database of custody images. The database will be populated with images of individuals who are forbidden from attending carnival, as well as individuals wanted by police.”

The Met trialled the system last year, but it failed to pick out any suspects. Facial recognition technology is improving rapidly and the force believes it has the potential to provide a powerful new tool to law enforcement. Only images that come up as a match with a wanted offender will be retained by police, the Met said.

However, as the technology improves and costs come down, it may be the next big battleground between the rights of the individual and power held by the state in the name of public safety.

Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, said: “This intrusive biometric surveillance has no place at the Notting Hill carnival. There is no basis in law for facial recognition, no transparency around its use and we’ve had no public or parliamentary debate about whether this technology could ever be lawful in a democracy.

A Metropolitan police officer watches a bank of monitors showing images from London’s CCTV camera network. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

“There is also serious doubt about its accuracy – with research showing some cameras are significantly more likely to misidentify black people and women.”

Stafford Scott, of the anti-racism charity the Monitoring Group, said: “It is racial profiling. They are coming and putting everyone’s face in the system. A technique they use for terrorists is going to be used against young black people enjoying themselves.

“They are still institutionally racist, that will impact on communities like mine.”


The Met said it had consulted on the deployment technology with a regulator and a civil liberties group. “The deployment of the cameras is to test the technology and was implemented following close liaison with the information commissioner and Big Brother Watch. Once the trial is complete, we will be analysing the results and holding a public consultation.”

However, Big Brother Watch, a privacy group campaigning against burgeoning state powers, said it had one chat with police last summer. Its chief executive, Renate Samson, said: “We met with them before the trial last year and haven’t spoken to them since. Certainly, we did not know the technology was to be trialled again this year.”

A different facial recognition system was used by police in Cardiff when the Welsh capital hosted May’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus.

Sam Lincoln, a former chief inspector in the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, said: “When you put facial recognition on to CCTV cameras, the ability for crime fighters to recognise people is enhanced. It speeds it up, you don’t have to have lots of people watching video.

“Who is saying that a camera has the capability? How is the capability used? How is it monitored? How is that data being connected to other surveillance? It’s a very clever method of data collection.”

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