People at King’s Cross site express unease about facial recognition

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One person reassured by the technology but most echo the complaint that ‘it’s unjustified’

Members of the public have said there is no justification for the use of facial recognition technology in CCTV systems operated by a private developer at a 67-acre site in central London.

It emerged on Monday that the property developer Argent was using the cameras “in the interests of public safety” in King’s Cross, mostly north of the railway station across an area including the Google headquarters and the Central Saint Martins art school, but the precise uses of the technology remained unclear.

“For law enforcement purposes, there is some justification, but personally I don’t think a private developer has the right to have that in a public place,” said Grant Otto, who lives in London. “I think it’s unjustified.”

He questioned possible legal issues around the collection of facial data by a private entity and said he was unaware of any protections that would allow people to request their information be removed from a database, with similar rights as those enshrined in GDPR.

Jack Ramsey, a tourist from New Zealand, echoed his concerns. He said: “It makes you think: ‘What sort of information they are trying to get from us?’ Are they trialling a new system for security reasons, are they tracking every person who comes in the area – maybe for information that could be bought by the shops, like ‘Our customer comes here three times a week, is there a way we can target him more?’”

The cameras are difficult to spot and when the Guardian asked a security guard where they were around Granary Square he refused to say and contacted his colleagues over the radio to register the incident.

Not everyone was against the technology in principle. “I don’t mind being recognised,” said Barbara Toscani, an Italian who has lived in London for a decade. “Even on the internet, you know, they collect my data. What do they do with it? Well, they try to sell me something, that’s the worst that can happen, in my opinion. So I’m not really into those conspiracy theories.

“Actually, I feel safer if it’s used for security reasons because it’s a public space in central London, if there’s a criminal that can be recognised and tackled, whatever, that’s good. I don’t have anything to hide, generally. If they recognise my face, I smile.”

But others said they were against all encroachments upon their privacy. “I hate having my privacy disrupted and I don’t feel that CCTV helps much,” Amanda Rogers, from Portland, US said. “Every time I’ve relied on CCTV to catch someone who’s done something it’s never worked. So I just think it’s another type of ‘Big Brother is watching you’ and that makes me feel uneasy. I’m sure it’s just another way they are trying to control us.”

Alannah Money, a holidaymaker from Sydney, Australia, said she was not bothered because so much of her data was already in the ether. “I’m pretty sure that Apple owns my face, they have my fingerprint, Google is in my house all the time. I feel like I should be more concerned, but I’m not. Anything you put up on social media, they own it. They have all of your information, everything. So it’s just ‘Add it to the pile’ at this point.”

But after the private developer left aspects of the technology’s use unclear, some demanded to know what it would be used for.

“What do they need that facial recognition information for?” said a Spaniard who asked to remain anonymous since his application for leave to remain was pending. “It’s funny because I’m a European, but just to be here with the Brexit I had to fill out lots of papers, even though I’ve been here many years. Is it just to tease people? Because when it comes to proving who you are, they don’t know who you are!”

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