More than 300 road traffic cameras are currently snooping on pedestrians across the UK as part of a government-backed project that was secretly launched amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a Daily Mail probe has revealed.
The inquiry claimed that in June, Vivacity Labs, the company behind the Artificial Intelligence camera technology, received instructions from the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] to "improve the collection of social distancing data", in what came along with a £49,481 ($64,450) government grant.
This followed at least 363 cameras that were originally installed to monitor traffic flows being switched to spying on pedestrians, according to the probe.
While Vivacity Labs declined to clarify where the cameras were rolled out, citing "commercial confidentiality", the Daily Mail investigation revealed that social distancing is already being monitored in an array of UK cities and counties, including Liverpool, Manchester, Westminster, and Oxfordshire, as well as Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire, Bournemouth, and Peterborough.
The inquiry also referred to Vivacity's "confidential" contract with the UK Department for Transport stipulating the company sending monthly updates on pedestrians commitment to social distancing rules to the department.
The probe specifically stressed that people were not in the know about their movements being spotted because the government avoided consulting the public on the change in the use of the cameras.
The Daily Mail cited former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith as describing the repurposing of the cameras as "the kind of stuff that China does".
"The reason why you film cars is to stop road accidents and things like that. You don't film people going about their daily business so you can report on their comings and goings. It's becoming mad", he said.
Smith claimed that Britons are "losing" their "inalienable freedoms", and the COVID-19 pandemic is "destroying the very nature of what 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 but they shouldn't be doing this in the first place", he pointed out.
The former Tory leader was echoed by Edin Omanovic from the London-based charity Privacy International, who warned that if Brits "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 they secretly sought to repurpose the cameras shows a shocking disregard for transparency, local authorities, and the public", Omanovic added.
The Daily Mail probe was revealed a week after senior adviser to the UK government Sir John Bell told the BBC that the only way for the country to curtail an increasing spike in its COVID-19 numbers is through the imposition of a second national lockdown.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly opposed the imposition of a second nationwide, preferring instead to implement localised measures, including those related to social distancing.