Christmas shoppers in London will be asked to participate in trials of the Met’s latest facial recognition technology. They will have a mobile unit with the surveillance software roaming around the West End, including Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Soho. The officers carrying out the software testing will be in uniform, have information leaflets for those participating and ask individuals if they can be filmed.

The eventual usage of this tool will be covert surveillance, but these trials are overt.

What if I say no to being filmed?

The police have said that anyone who declines the invitation to participate in the trail will not be viewed as suspicious.

Why are the police investing in this kind of technology?

The police often use specially adapted cutting edge technology to make existing systems more efficient or introduce new ways of fighting crime. Such as the new AI systems being used by the Serious Fraud Office.

As reported in The Metro, the person leading the Metropolitan Police’s live facial technology development, Ivan Balhatchet, said: “The Met is currently developing the use of live facial recognition technology and we have committed to 10 trials during the coming months. We are now coming to the end of our trials when a full evaluation will be completed.”

It could be an extremely useful tool for the police, particularly in high density crowds and it has been used as part of the law enforcement strategy at a number of high profile events.

How does facial recognition technology (FRT) work?

Facial recognition technology, or automated facial recognition (AFR) technology, uses cameras to film people in real time. The cameras also highlight the face area with infrared light which is necessary for the dot projector to do its part. This projector makes a 3D image of the person’s face using 30,000 dots of infrared light. The completed image now contains all the precise dimensions of that face. The software then plays snap with the Police National Database to see if this new face matches any of its existing 19 million captured faces.

The idea is that anyone of interest to the police that is attending an event, or is part of a crowd, can be identified and neutralised with greater speed.

Has it been successful so far?

This particular technology does not have a great track record of success with the police so far. The technology is able to identify gender, age, emotion and some other features. Unfortunately, it is not as good at matching two faces and is particularly less accurate when the faces are non-white. In this instance, more work needs to be done with expanding the datasets.

The group Big Brother Watch, found out that only 2% of all the matches made by this technology as used by the Met Police were accurate by asking through the Freedom of Information act system.

As reported by the BBC, in 2016 and 2017, FRT was used by the Met to police the Notting Hill Carnival and a Remembrance Sunday occasion. It wrongly matched 102 people and there were no arrests as a result.

An evaluation of FRT done by South Wales Police highlighted the fact that accuracy decreases both in larger groups of people and if the light is dimmer. They have been using the technology since the 2017 Champions League Final. Their conclusion stated that considerable investment is needed to improve the accuracy of the technology to make it an effective policing tool.

Are there other reasons not to use FRT?

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being continuously filmed by ordinary security cameras and this technology takes it one step further. It is covert monitoring of people, most of whom are not under any suspicion of anything criminal, as they go about their daily lives.

Silkie Carlo is the director of Big Brother Watch and said: “The police’s use of this authoritarian surveillance tool in total absence of a legal or democratic basis is alarming. Live facial recognition is a form of mass surveillance that, if allowed to continue, will turn members of the public into walking ID cards. ‘As with all mass surveillance tools, it is the general public who suffer more than criminals. The fact that it has been utterly useless so far shows what a terrible waste of police time and public money it is. It is well overdue that police drop this dangerous and lawless technology.”

There are huge issues with the accuracy of the technology and the possibility of false positives leading to incorrect arrests.

What is the official line on FTR?

In an article on her blog, the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham shares these concerns: “A key component of any FRT system is the underlying database of images the system matches to. The use of images collected when individuals are taken into custody is of concern; there are over 19 million images in the Police National Database (PND) database. I am also considering the transparency and proportionality of retaining these photographs as a separate issue, particularly for those arrested but not charged for certain offences. The Biometrics Commissioner has also raised these concerns.

For the use of FRT to be legal, the police forces must have clear evidence to demonstrate that the use of FRT in public spaces is effective in resolving the problem that it aims to address, and that no less intrusive technology or methods are available to address that problem. Strengthened data protection rules coming into law next week require organisations to assess the risks of using new and intrusive technologies, particularly involving biometric data, in a data protection impact and provide it to my office when the risks are difficult to address.”

What about innovations in the technology?

What is absolutely clear so far is that a lot of R&D needs to be done to make the software fit for purpose as a crime fighting tool. There are several main elements to the technology that can be refined in order to resolve the problems already identified; infrared dot tech, precision matching, dealing with differing amounts of light, functionality in high density crowds and whatever issues come out of the Met’s current trails. If your business is involved in resolving any of these problems, claiming the corresponding R&D Tax Credits is a brilliant financial boost.

Jamie Smith