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London adding millions of Chinese CCTV cameras with facial recognition capability

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photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

The capital city of the United Kingdom has for years been quietly installing CCTV cameras, manufactured in China, which contain the capacity for facial recognition.

According to the U.K. Daily Mail, millions of cameras designed "to prevent crime and promote public safety" and built by one of two Chinese companies, Dahua and Hikvision, have been installed across all 32 London boroughs. The Daily Mail gives an unsettling description of the cameras made by Dahua: "It is a disturbingly anthropomorphic CCTV camera, with two lenses that resemble eyes and two other indeterminate features that serve as the nose and mouth; and it hangs from a pole ringed with spikes to protect its hardware from would-be thieves or vandals."

But perhaps even more unsettling than the supposed physical structure of the camera is its capacity for facial recognition. The technology used to collect biometric data about a person's face and head is so sophisticated that the Chinese Communist Party allegedly used it to identify Uyghur Muslim minorities on the streets so that they could be apprehended and sent to a concentration camp, according to the report. Dahua even promotes the feature as a "Real Time Uyghur Warning."

Because of the facial recognition capabilities in these cameras and the fact that they've been used to facilitate possible crimes against humanity upon Uyghur Muslims, the United States has banned the use of Dahua and Hikvision cameras. However, at least one U.S. facial recognition company, Clearview AI, still benefited from the Dahua and Hikvision cameras used in Britain. In May, Clearview AI was discovered to have illegally acquired the online images of millions of British nationals without their knowledge or consent. The U.K.'s Information Commissioner's Office has since ordered Clearview AI to destroy the images and pay a fine of £7.5 million.

Though the sheer number of CCTV cameras in Britain and their Chinese provenance have incited the ire of many civil and human rights advocates, most British municipal councils and police forces insist that the cameras are not currently utilizing the facial recognition feature. But this assurance has done little to temper the prevailing skepticism.

"Even if (the technology is) not being used for the most intrusive capabilities at the moment," said digital researcher Samuel Woodhams, "it wouldn’t be that much of a jump to do it."

London is currently the third most surveilled city in the entire world, and four of the top five most surveilled cities are all in China. The only other European city to crack the top 50 is Berlin, listed at No. 50.

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