London police charged with using controversial facial recognition

Illustration of biometric facial analysis
Critics say that PimEyes enables surveillance on a previously unimaginable scale. (Source: IMAGO / Science Photo Library)

Officers from London’s Metropolitan Police accessed the controversial facial recognition search engine PimEyes thousands of times. That’s according to a report published Monday by the British news site i-News in partnership with the NGO Liberty Investigates. The report draws on data available under Freedom of Information rules. The authorities have now blocked access to the site.

PimEyes compiles facial images online on a massive scale, analyzes them for individual characteristics, and saves the biometric data. When paying customers upload a photo, the search engine displays matching photos and links to the photos’ sources on the internet.

According to the report, officers viewed the controversial site a total of 2,337 times in the first three months of this year.

A spokesperson for the London police force told i-News that a visit to the PimEyes website was not proof that a facial recognition search was actually conducted. In response to the investigation, however, the Metropolitan Police had “blocked all access to the site from its devices.”

Police implement facial recognition

Police in Britain already use facial recognition: in London for example mobile facial recognition units are already deployed to search for wanted individuals in public spaces. As i-News reports, however, officers can also use PimEyes to search for individuals “without an official audit trail” or other safeguards: the systems used by the Metropolitan Police, for instance, “limit searches to watchlists of wanted people and their use is subject to approval by senior officers.” But with PimEyes officers can search for individuals at will.

British politicians criticize officers’ access to PimEyes. Former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis told i-News: “The police should only ever use tools that have been properly vetted, tested, and approved for use. PimEyes is none of those.” He demanded that all other police forces in the UK block access to the facial recognition search engine.

Jake Hurfurt from the British civil liberties organization Big Brother Watch said: “It is entirely inappropriate for police officers to use PimEyes.”

It remains unclear whether other law enforcement agencies in Britain use PimEyes. Forty-five other British police forces declined or did not respond to requests for information – some cited the risk of “revealing police tactics and hindering the prevention of crime,” i-News reports.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council meanwhile advised police forces to neither confirm nor deny the use of PimEyes – for fear of “negative press.”

Criticism of PimEyes

An investigation by the news site in summer 2020 was the first to draw attention to the service offered by PimEyes. At the time the company was based in Poland – but it has since been sold and has moved headquarters several times. The company’s website currently lists an address in Belize. The company also reportedly has an office in the Republic of Georgia.

The German Police Trade Union was among those that criticized PimEyes when it first gained notoriety, stating that the search engine posed “enormous dangers to citizens’ anonymity and [did] not belong in private hands.”

In late 2023 it was revealed that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had also tested PimEyes – possibly for operational purposes, as APD representatives were forced to admit. One Australian senator criticized PimEyes as being “particularly dangerous.”

The tool has long faced criticism: Big Brother Watch warns that PimEyes processes the biometric data of people whose photos are visible online without their consent. The tool is severely intrusive and enables surveillance “on a scale previously unimaginable.”

Past studies have shown that the tool can be used to identify people who participate in political demonstrations. It was also revealed in August 2022 that men had used the search engine to track down women they didn’t know.

As i-News reports, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Britain’s data watchdog, has investigated PimEyes but has not taken any action against the company. A spokeswoman for the ICO said its investigation had been concluded last year – but could be revisited “should any further information come to light.”

Meanwhile the use of facial recognition by police in Britain is expanding. In April the government announced plans to invest more than 50 million pounds in facial recognition systems. Civil liberties groups warn of mass-scale surveillance. (js)