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Biometric technology trials halted by police amid fear of public reaction

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UK pilots of new software that could help interdict terrorism and child trafficking are being held up because of concerns about privacy intrusion.

Police trials of facial recognition technology that could help catch terrorists and child snatchers are being cancelled because of concerns about a possible backlash.

Charlie Hedges, a former senior National Crime Agency officer who worked on several major child abduction cases, said UK trials of CCTV scanning software - meant to have taken place in conjunction with technology firm Facewatch - had been called off at the eleventh hour.

The Metropolitan Police faced a backlash earlier this month over its use of similar software at the Notting Hill Carnival after Silkie Carlo, an advocacy officer from Liberty, wrote in a blog post that she felt “invaded” by the gadgetry.

Two years ago, Leicestershire Police was heavily criticised for scanning the faces of 90,000 festival-goers and checking them against a list of wanted criminals.

Now senior officers in charge of organising trials of so-called smart CCTV in public places are understood to be delaying the experiments because they are nervous that people will react badly to the surveillance.

Digital Barriers, a firm that offers facial recognition systems to the police, has not yet had its so-called SmartVis software trialled in the UK – despite offering it free of charge in cases involving missing children.

Other companies offering similar products include NEC and SeeQuestor, neither of which responded to queries about the extent of their trials within the UK. The technology has been described as like running a Google search on a series of faces through reams of CCTV footage in real time - a process one expert described as “spooky”.

Hedges, who runs a child-safeguarding consultancy, told E&T he had managed to secure CCTV cameras and Facewatch technology on a pro bono basis and that several large shopping centres had agreed to take part in operations designed to test drive the system. He said these plans had later fallen through after months of work.

Hedges told E&T: “The police initially were OK with it and then, just as we were about to make it go live, they pulled out. It’s so frustrating.”

He added: “I’ve been doing some work on facial recognition, particularly in relation to missing children, and that has thrown up all sorts of problems. There’s huge potential in counter-terrorism and other areas of crime, but my focus has been on missing children and the obstacles I’ve come up against have been just enormous.

“If there is a high-risk missing child, particularly in a shopping-centre scenario, a Jamie Bulger type of thing - because in shopping centres you have such a huge number of CCTV cameras everywhere - the development of increasingly sophisticated facial-recognition technology means that if you have those extremely vulnerable missing children on a watchlist that is linked to facial recognition-enabled cameras, you’ve got a chance of being able to identify them more quickly.”

A spokesman for Facewatch confirmed the company had not yet run trials with police in the UK, but said it hoped to be involved in some at a later date.

Big Brother Watch’s chief executive Renate Samson said safeguards around use of facial biometrics were not in line with those connected with DNA and fingerprint records on police computer systems. The group is running a campaign against retention of custody images of innocent people on the Police National Database.

The government was supposed to have published a biometrics strategy years ago, but it has been serially delayed, creating a regulatory vacuum. A spokesman for the Home Office, which is pouring money into this type of technology, said only that the strategy would be published “in due course”.

Technology and security consultant John Carr, who has worked with UK police forces as well as Europol, acknowledged concerns about Minority Report-style policing, but said he failed to see why anyone would object to the latest facial recognition technology being used to catch terrorists.

Dr Josh Davis, an expert in so-called super-recognisers – people with an innate ability to recognise particular faces – said: “I think people worry about Big Brother far more than necessary.”

However, he added that the technology was not yet good enough, stating: “I argue you need a super-recogniser. The equipment throws up a face that might look vaguely like someone on the watchlist. Well, a police officer has got to make the decision about whether it’s the same person or not. You probably want someone who is at least reasonably good at facial recognition to do that.”

Lord Harris of Hariney, a Labour peer who held a review for Sadiq Khan on London’s preparedness for terror attacks, said: “This technology is advancing so rapidly that, in a sense, it’s a bit silly for the police not to be making use of it.

The latest iPhone is supposed to be able to recognise you. Google was doing a whole host of experiments on facial recognition and that’s before you even start on all the other companies that have been working on it.

It gets more refined and more accurate as every month, or certainly every year, passes. If it’s not the police doing it, it’ll be the private sector doing it. The technology’s there. Of course people get very nervous about this, but actually you can also anonymise it in various ways so that what you’re looking at is a specific image of specific characteristics.

He added: “Is this any different from the fact that you might have a briefing for 60 police officers showing them a picture of a suspect and telling them to go scan the crowd and if they see them, to go and arrest him or her? They’ve been using human spotters of people for a long time and I’m not sure what the difference really is apart from scale and numbers.

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