UK signs contract with IBM to provide police with facial recognition tech – report

An investigation claims IBM has signed a contract with the UK government to provide facial recognition tech, despite vowing not to do so previously.

The journalistic arm of human rights advocate Liberty teamed up with US tech site The Verge to expose the claim that signed a $69.8m (£54.7m) contract with the British government to develop a national biometrics platform that ‘last month IBM signed a $69.8m (£54.7m) contract with the British government to develop a national biometrics platform that will offer a facial recognition function to immigration and law enforcement officials.’

The source is some documents viewed by them, as well as a published UK government contract notice for a ‘Home Office Biometrics Matcher Platform and associated Services(BMPS)’. The description of the project breaks it down into five stages. Stage five, presumably the culmination of the project, simply concerns ‘Facial matching for law enforcement use-case’.

In 2020 US tech giant IBM wrote a letter (now only available through Wayback Machine, it seems) to Congress saying it “…firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance…” While that letter seems to have been written in the specific context of the outrage caused by the death of George Floyd, the underlying principle is surely absolute.

When confronted by the reporters, IBM said “The Home Office Biometrics Matcher Platform and associated Services contract is not used in mass surveillance. It supports police and immigration services in identifying suspects against a database of fingerprint and photo data. It is not capable of video ingest which would typically be needed to support face-in-a-crowd biometric usage.”

The distinction made by IBM seems minor and even if video ingest is not currently supported, surely this contract sets the platform for it. It’s easy to see why this is such a contentious subject. Not only does such technology potentially enable things like racial profiling on an industrial level, combined with recent AI developments it could even support dystopian concepts such as emotion recognition and social credit systems.

The report notes that other US tech giants have sought to distance themselves from the sale of their facial recognition tech to governments and this report is presumably uncomfortable for IBM. The real pressure, however, should be applied to governments themselves. They should be transparent about the implementation of this sort of technology as well as publishing clear parameters on its use, if at all.


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