Visual research collective RAKE interrogates the control exerted by the UK police via insidious surveillance technologies

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Research has shown that London is one of the most surveilled cities worldwide

On 25 May 2021, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that UK intelligence and cyber agency GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] had violated citizens’ right to privacy through unlawful, bulk interception of private communications. On 27 May 2021, privacy campaigners filed legal complaints in France, Austria, Italy, Greece and the UK over the practices of Clearview AI. (The American company is responsible for building a facial recognition database using images ‘scraped’ from the web, which it is thought at least 10 European police forces employ.) Indeed, this is, as the documentary photographer Nuno Guerreiro de Sousa reflects, a critical time to discuss surveillance, power, and control because “this is when these technologies are being tested, implemented and regulated. This is the time to make a noise”.

Guerreiro de Sousa is one of the founding members of the visual research collective RAKE, along with Nancy Hurman, Flora Thomas, and Vera Zurbrügg. The four met while studying on the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography MA at the London College of Communication and, realising they shared similar interests, decided to work together after graduation in December 2019. The name RAKE references ‘muckraking’: the idea of searching out and publicly exposing misconduct by dominant forces. And that’s what they do through their projects, which are research-heavy and help visualise abstract concepts and data.

RAKE’s first series, We May Meet One Day, investigates far-right ideologies and their intersection with technology and the internet. The November 2019 database leak of Iron March, a neo-Nazi and white supremacist messaging board, prompted the project, which explores the physical and virtual sites of violence connected to the organisation and highlights how prevalent these are. Now RAKE is creating new work under the title Police State. An ongoing project considering the covert control wielded by the UK police via surveillance, facial recognition, and laws such as the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. (The legislation would equip police with a wide range of new powers, including those over protests, such as the ability to impose “conditions” on any demonstration deemed disruptive to the local community.) 

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the sometimes-voiced sentiment that the UK police use less force than those elsewhere prompted RAKE to start the project. The cosy vision of “the bobby on the beat” still lingers in Britain, observes RAKE member Hurman, especially because most police here do not carry guns. But, that cosy confidence belies an insidious power behind the scenes: a system of surveillance and control that Hurman describes as “bureaucratic violence”. 

Indeed, a recent study by comparitech found that London is the third most surveilled city worldwide based on the number of cameras per 1000 people. These cameras aren’t all owned by the police. However, this does not mean the police aren’t sharing data. For example, at the end of 2019, a police report revealed that the Metropolitan Police shared images of several people with the owners of an ostensibly public space in London’s King Cross to feed into the facial recognition systems installed there.

“In using these technologies, not only are you perpetuating biases, but you also get this false sense of confirmation that technology brings,” says Guerreiro de Sousa. “There’s this sense that, if you’re using a machine, it must be right.”

As part of the series, RAKE has created composite images marrying photographs of London taken from Google Street View with shots of police in the same places at protests, filmed by RAKE member Thomas. The actual police at the demonstrations are visible. But, what RAKE hopes to convey with these composites is the police and the state’s more insidious presence via technologies like CCTV and facial recognition. “The way we are policed in everyday life is hidden,” explains Zurbrügg. “You can see the CCTV if you look, but it becomes abstract.”

Other images in Police State reference how the UK police also actively film and photograph protestors, employing facial recognition technology to identify individuals. For instance, RAKE has manipulated one series of photographs of police officers’ profiles to suggest how computers see faces.

To facial recognition programs, faces are a series of vectors that can be measured and analysed, as if they’re objects; this fact alone gives pause for thought, but there’s also the complication that these programs aren’t objective. US government studies have demonstrated that facial recognition algorithms are less accurate when used on African-American and Asian faces, for example, and are least accurate if employed with images of African-American women.

“In using these technologies, not only are you perpetuating biases, but you also get this false sense of confirmation that technology brings,” says Guerreiro de Sousa. “There’s this sense that, if you’re using a machine, it must be right.”

And that’s something RAKE has also played with, showing what happens if images of CCTV cameras and webcams are fed to an AI tasked with generating new images of cameras, images that would fool another AI. The results look warped and bizarre, suggesting the computers’ very different perception and also how they learn. “If you watch, sometimes you see the algorithm pick up on a certain detail and just kind of run with it,” says Hurman. “It gets carried away with it or creates its own bias from stuff that we would never pick up on, but that exists in the data set.”

RAKE wants to continue to explore machine learning and data recognition, and the collective sees Police State as a long-term project. Ultimately, the series is relevant to police forces both within the UK and outside of it. And it is also a comment on state power.

The project addresses other systems of surveillance and control in our societies as well, including those operated by private companies that may or may not be collaborating with governments. However, while Police State is a critique of the technology used to survey British citizens, RAKE is far from anti-technology. Instead, the collective is actively employing it to subvert the police’s approach. As Zurbrügg says, “we’re watching the watchers”.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy