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Facial recognition systems in cities: Security vs privacy

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Facial recognition systems installed in many cities around the world are able in real-time to identify gender, age, and even the name of a person who fell into the camera lens. Plenty of CCTV cameras are already installed in courtyards, porches, parks, schools, clinics, retail and construction facilities, etc.

China is considered to be the leader in the number of installed surveillance cameras. About 470K cameras operate in the capital of the country, Beijing. Western countries are also actively starting to use facial recognition technology.

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Facial recognition systems in London

The authorities intend to use it for the sake of security and to fight crime. The London police have been testing this for three years now. As per this document, there are about 420K surveillance cameras installed in the British capital.

Thanks to the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning, cameras, can recognize specific objects, people, and notice strange things in their behavior.

The London police check how accurately the facial recognition technology works by installing cameras and monitoring passers-by to see if the technology will find among them people who look like criminals whose images are stored in their database.

However, ordinary British people believe that the authorities should ask their permission to collect such data. Residents of the country have already begun to defend their rights in courts.

At the same time, the UK has legislation in force according to which everyone can contact law enforcement agencies to find out what information is collected about them.

Similar proceedings are taking place in other countries. In San Francisco, authorities temporarily banned the police and other agencies from using this technology until the rules governing its use appear.

China uses this technology to spy on ethnic minorities. It is very alarming that Great Britain follows this path and sets a precedent not only for other democratic societies but also for less liberal countries.

Facial recognition systems in other places

The country's public transport operator Transport for London uses this technology to monitor passengers. British hospitals use it to monitor patients. The private sector is also interested in facial recognition. In the coming months, the British startup Yoti will equip 25K stores with software that determines the age of customers. Trueface.ai, an American startup, is already supplying facial recognition technology to casinos.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in the US, facial recognition began to be used in schools and summer camps. The authorities want to increase security because shooting incidents occur in American schools too often. For this, educational institutions create databases with photographs of people who are forbidden to be in their territory. In the event software identifies such people, the school will be notified. The program is also able to identify weapons in the hands of a person.

Summer camp?

In the USA, more than 150 summer camps offer parents to pay for the services of the Waldo Photos service which finds photos of each camper and delivers them via text message to their families as soon as the images are uploaded to the camp album.

The technical potential of facial recognition technology is huge. There are cameras with such powerful optics that it allows you to read a newspaper from the roof of a skyscraper. You can recognize faces, build a person’s routes, combine this with data from other sources, even build a 3D model of the observed area. Systems are being improved every day.

Facial recognition rarely works at the camera level. Each separate camera has a rather weak processor and limited memory. You need a lot of servers to keep in their memory all the faces of a small city. Cameras send a video stream to the server, and there you can find faces from large databases.

Facial recognition systems and CCTV in China

The operating costs of such systems do not allow for their continuous operation, even in the leading countries - the USA or China. Facial recognition requires plenty of electricity. A facial recognition system that uses a database of a million people is very expensive. Electricity may cost up to several hundred dollars a month per camera. And there is also the cost of transmitting a video stream, storage, and a license for facial recognition software. Therefore, so far, no one in the world, even the USA or China, can ensure the continuous operation of such systems at the level of a big city.

In many cities, it is turned on for a while to provide control during a mass event or when searching for a dangerous criminal. But as soon as the problem is solved, they turn it off, because keeping such a system idle is very expensive.

The situation with the use of CCTV cameras is twofold. Does such observation in public places affect the private life of specific citizens who fall into the lens? Earlier, before the advent of recognition systems, the answer was no.

In addition, the fact that a citizen was in a public place was previously unambiguously regarded as acting outside of his private life. There was a principle of "private life" inside the private territory, and in public places, private life could not exist.


Using facial recognition systems, observation leads to a large amount of data that can be automatically processed and tied to a specific person. Therefore, there is an argument in favor of the fact that the use of facial recognition systems in public places should be recognized as collecting information about the private life of citizens, despite the fact that the place is public and the observation covers an indefinite number of people.

The use of a recognition system and the corresponding processing of personal data is not clearly unlawful. These actions are permitted by law and subject to certain requirements: who carries it out, what data is collected and for what purposes, etc.

It is essential to mention that tracking does not end on the street. When people come home, and turn on their computers, they find that social networks, Internet service providers, operating systems, online search services, and even simple programs, everyone is trying to collect data about them. Computers and telephones have become devices for tracking and collecting (often private) information about people. Yes, there are some technical ways to protect your privacy. Previously, only programmers knew about VPNs, but now more and more people use them.

In general, the global trend is that society and authorities are trying to increase their control over the life of citizens, and they use new technologies for collecting and processing private data.

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