CCTV may soon ‘identify’ criminals

· Offenders’ faces tracked through CCTV images
· Scheme part of ‘hi-tech revolution on the beat’

The police are developing the first national database of mugshots so that they can use face recognition technology to match CCTV images with details of offenders, MPs were told yesterday.

The system is being developed in a pilot scheme involving the Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Merseyside police which has generated a database of more than 750,000 facial images over the past 18 months. Peter Neyroud, the chief executive of the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), told MPs yesterday that the development of a national facial images database is just one element of a technological revolution in neighbourhood beat policing.

Neyroud, former chief constable of Thames Valley, hopes that by the time of the 2012 London Olympics beat officers will be equipped with advanced “second-generation” hand-held computers which can take and transmit fingerprints, download mugshots and details from the police national computer, and access images from local CCTV cameras.

His hi-tech vision of the future of policing was given during the final evidence session of a year-long inquiry by the Commons home affairs select committee into the “surveillance society”.

The development of an electronic mugshot database is still at an early stage. In the pilot scheme areas the digital photographs are logged of everyone who has been arrested for a criminal offence, with the image linked to the criminal data held on the police national computer. While each force is able to search the electronic mugshots in its own area to match them with CCTV images, the technology does not yet exist to search on the scale needed for a national database.

The NPIA said the database would allow forces around the country to search for, retrieve, store and transmit facial images or video images with scars, marks and tattoos if appropriate. The idea is that each force will store its images on a central national database to give all forces immediate access to the mugshots for intelligence and investigative purposes.

So far only three police forces have been involved in contributing and viewing images, but several other forces, including Greater Manchester, North Wales, parts of the Metropolitan, and the immigration police have been given “read-only” access. So far £6m has been allocated on developing the technology with a national launch date of 2009 pencilled in.

NPIA evidence to the committee raises the prospect of “automated face recognition” to identify known offenders or terror suspects. But Neyroud said trials around the world had shown that there was still a long way to go before such systems could be used reliably.

The police are also developing “behavourial matching” software to pick out odd behaviour in a crowd using CCTV picures. “That might be particularly useful in counter-terrorism or tackling street crime,” he said. “The proliferation of CCTV cameras in the UK – with about one for every 14 people – means that we are now accustomed to our movements being monitored in this way and for most people this is not an issue.”

The Home Office minister, Tony McNulty, told the committee that people’s fears over a “surveillance society” were the “meat of myths”. He said that the regulatory oversight of surveillance was far more robust than many assumed. “The idea of big brother or big sister sitting on everybody’s shoulder makes great copy for the newspapers but it is simply not the case.”

lan Travis
The Guardian