When he visited King's Cross Station in the Harry Potter stories, the eponymous boy wizard had plenty to worry about - getting to the train on time involved navigating himself, his owl and all of his belongings through a magical portal and onto the fabled platform 9 and 3/4. On one memorable occasion the magic failed, causing Harry to come up short as he collided with solid brickwork.
One thing he didn't have to contend with was facial recognition technology, but businesses who have been rushing to adopt that magical technology have recently found that they are encountering painful obstacles of their own.
This report, picking up a story first featured in the FT, covers the use of facial recognition as part of a scheme of detection and tracking methods adopted by the developer of a large site near Kings's Cross. There are a couple of surprising features to this. First, this seems to be a full blown implementation, rather than simply a trial as most recent instances have been. Secondly, there appears to have been very little in the way of proper information provided about this processing activity, even to other commercial users of the site.
For years, businesses have raced to secure a commercial advantage by being the first to adopt new technology. What the recent slew of negative stories about facial recognition projects illustrates is that something fundamental has changed. It is no longer possible to buy a new system, plug it in and start to reap the benefits.
After all of the publicity around GDPR, there is a growing expectation of transparency and a proper consideration of impact, before businesses embark on such projects. Privacy impacting products and services are going to be subjected to intense and well-informed scrutiny. And it is going to take more than the wave of a magic wand to make that scrutiny go away.
However, privacy groups have also voiced concerns about the implications of facial recognition on privacy rights. "Facial recognition is nothing like CCTV - it's not an accurate comparison," said Stephanie Hare, an independent researcher and tech commentator. "It allows us to be identified and tracked in real time, without our knowledge or our informed consent. "We recognise the power of DNA and fingerprints as biometrics and their use is governed very strictly under UK law. We do not apply the same protections and restrictions to face, yet it is arguably even more powerful precisely because it can be taken without our knowledge."