Police could deploy body cameras with facial recognition technology to catch suspects

·3-min read
The technology works by using artificial intelligence to scan faces and cross-reference them with a database of people’s pictures - David McNew/AFP/Getty Images
The technology works by using artificial intelligence to scan faces and cross-reference them with a database of people’s pictures - David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Police could deploy body-worn cameras equipped with facial recognition technology to help identify potential suspects or find missing people.

A British company claimed to be the first in the world to have developed body-worn cameras with artificial intelligence capable of recognising faces and cross-referencing them with a database of people’s pictures.

The software is being trialled by 10 police forces to see whether it can retrospectively match individuals to faces recognised by the technology in video footage and photographs from CCTV cameras.

Because of the sensitivities over the use of facial recognition technology, it is being tested only on video clips and images of the forces’ own officers.

Hampshire Constabulary, Humberside Police, North Wales Police and South Yorkshire Police are understood to be among the forces to have either started or are about to begin trials of the software, which uses an algorithm that originated as a university science project.

Reveal, the company behind the software, provides body-worn cameras to 30 police forces in England and Wales, into which it can be integrated to check the faces of people with whom officers come into contact.

Alasdair Field, chief executive of Reveal, said any live pilots would have to be for a designated specific purpose and subject to guidance laid down by Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, and the College of Policing to protect against unwarranted mass surveillance and maintain privacy.

“It’s about identification and verification of people that would generally be stopped on a particular purpose,” said Mr Field.

“It could be ranging from missing people, vulnerable people such as someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, to children. It could be people banned from particular events such as football stadiums.

“If there was a new crime or a range of suspects and you sent a policeman to interview people, it would be one way of increasing your chances of identifying someone.”

However, he added: “I don’t want mass surveillance and I don’t want my kids to inherit a world where you know you’re going to be spied on. That is not what I’m trying to do in any way.”

There have been concerns about the accuracy and potential bias of facial recognition technology, but Mr Field said the software had been tested on thousands of faces and there had not yet been any false positives.

Privacy campaigners, however, warned that the use of the technology risked creating an “Orwellian police line-up”.

“This could turn innocent citizens’ encounters with the police, whether on the roads, at general call-outs or demonstrations, into an Orwellian police line-up,” said Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.

“Live facial recognition obliterates privacy and there are eye-watering possibilities for abuse. An urgent moratorium on authorities’ use of live facial recognition is needed. This deeply flawed spying technology has no place being sold or used in the UK.”

Official codes covering the deployment and use of facial recognition are being tightened after South Wales Police’s use of such cameras was judged unlawful, after a court action by an innocent member of the public who was filmed and who complained about breaches of his privacy.

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