An investigation revealed that London-based Vivacity Labs was the company responsible for the artificial intelligence camera technology used in the new pedestrian cameras. The startup received a £49,481 ($64,272) grant from Innovate UK, part of United Kingdom Research and Innovation public body, in June to “improve the collection of social distancing data.” Vivacity refused to reveal where its cameras were, citing commercial confidentiality.
Vivacity’s patented sensors contain an artificially intelligent camera, which can be installed on its own or attached to existing CCTV cameras. They can identify areas where people are walking less than two meters apart. However, it does not identify individuals – ruling out its use for enforcement. Mark Nicholson, one of Vivacity’s founders, said in September that the technology could soon be expanded to carry out temperature checks “depending on how far down the ‘Big Brother’ route we want to go.”
The vast majority of footage captured is deleted within seconds, though the company’s designers occasionally view footage when testing software improvements.
Despite the widespread and potentially life-changing use of the data, pedestrians do not know Vivacity’s traffic cameras are watching them because the national government and city councils who approved their installations did not consult the public on these changes.
Vivacity approached the national government and more than 30 city councils it was working with to see if they were interested in using data from the new cameras to analyze whether pedestrians followed physical distancing rules. However, neither of the councils contacted by MailOnline conducted a public consultation over the new cameras. Under current data protection laws, city councils were not legally obliged to consult the public as Vivacity’s sensors are not classified as recording personal data – given that majority of the footage was deleted within seconds.
The Department for Transport refused to answer the questions over how it used Vivacity’s data on social distancing. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the startup said the technology can “merely illustrate” the changes in people’s behaviors before and after lockdown restrictions are implemented. He added: “Our data has only been used to inform the statistical view of overall measurement of social distancing.”
Critics have slammed Vivacity’s use of its artificial intelligence cameras to monitor pedestrians without their consent.
Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said that Vivacity’s surveillance was “the kind of stuff that China does.” He remarked: “You don’t film people going about their daily business so you can report on their comings and goings. It’s becoming mad.”
Duncan Smith also warned that British citizens were losing their inalienable freedoms. “[COVID-19] is destroying the very nature of [how] it is to be in a democracy under the rule of law and protected freedoms. The authorities are now using devices [to monitor people] which were not intended for that purpose. The government should have informed the public [about the monitoring], but [it] should not be doing this in the first place,” he said.
Privacy International Advocacy Director Edin Omanovic said: “If we can’t even walk in public without a tech company trying to profit from us, or a government agency knowing about it, we’re heading to a truly dark place. The fact that [Vivacity Labs] secretly sought to repurpose the cameras shows a shocking disregard for transparency, local authorities and the public.”
The UK appears to follow the surveillance model described by British author George Orwell in his novel 1984. However, Duncan Smith is correct that China has done a better job with its surveillance system. (Related: Big Tech propping up China’s police state surveillance system.)
In fact, the communist country used the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to bolster surveillance on its citizens. American NGO Freedom House named China was the “worst abuser of internet freedom in the world” in its annual Freedom of the Net report. In a separate statement, Freedom House wrote that the pandemic “is normalizing the … digital authoritarianism that the [Chinese government] has long sought to mainstream.”