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Police shield

Dogs bark, ducks quack and Britain has a lot of CCTV cameras.

As much as we might fancy ourselves the home of civil liberties, we’re also a nation of curtain-twitching nosey-parkers – which is why most people aren’t too fussed about the electronic eyes proliferating throughout our towns and cities. Indeed, in many areas, local residents actively demand the installation of CCTV, which provides that reassuring element of continual presence we imagine we once had from the police.

Of course, electronic surveillance does not guarantee human surveillance. Yes, a CCTV system can provide a recording of a crime after the fact, but to detect and interrupt criminal behaviour in real time requires that each feed has someone paying attention to it – which is unlikely given the increasing affordability of the hardware and the decreasing affordability of the human element.

The solution is software – computer programs capable of processing the information gathered from multiple cameras and alerting the authorities to what they need to know. It is therefore significant that facial recognition software is now making the leap from hi-tech fiction to the real life mean streets of, er, Leicestershire.

Olivia Solon of Wired has the story:

“Police in Leicestershire will become the first in the UK to trial facial recognition software that can cross-reference any digital images with the police database.

“NeoFace is a computer program that can be used to automatically search, process and match facial images held in large digital mugshot databases in order to speed up criminal investigations — currently police officers will trawl through on-screen photos and compare them by eye.”

If you happen to bear an unfortunate resemblance to an escaped convict, should you be worried? Well, there are safeguards:

“The system… maintains an audit trail for each step of image enhancement – something that’s critical if it’s to be used as evidence. As it stands, however, this evidence can’t be used in court, it can only be used to develop new lines of enquiry.”

On the other hand, one shouldn’t underestimate just how powerful this sort of software is becoming:

“Some of the image enhancement tools that NeoFace offers include ‘pose correction’, which aims to create a frontal face image from a rotated image, and ‘consolidation’, which aims to generate a good frontal face image from a series of images at different angles.” 

There’s no escaping the police when they’ve got this capability. You might be able to use a scarf or a hoodie to avoid being recognised on one CCTV camera, but to cover up your face from every angle on a route that’s likely to take in multiple cameras is rather more difficult.

So this is what the very near future looks like: if your image is on a database and the police are equipped with facial recognition software, then in any area where CCTV is present, the authorities will know your exact location and movements at any time. It will be like wearing an electronic tag – except that the tag is your face.

One last thing to think about. Facial recognition software works by “comparing dozens of measurements between key facial features.” These characteristic measurements have a strong genetic basis, hence the phenomenon of family resemblance – which the software can pick-up on:

“‘We have over ninety-thousand photos on our system and NeoFace can compare someone’s image against our complete databases in seconds. Besides the speed it’s also impressive because it can even find family members related to the person we’re trying to identify,’ explains Andy Ramsey, who works in the force’s Identity unit.”

Are your relatives a law-abiding lot?

They’d better be.

22 comments for: CCTV plus facial recognition software equals electronic tags for everyone

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