In Depth

NeoFace: how police face-detection software works

From Facebook to the FBI, facial recognition software is everywhere – but is it a 'critical threat' to our privacy?

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Police in Leicestershire are trialling a face-detection system that can automatically identify suspects, provoking warnings from campaigners that such systems pose a "critical threat" to privacy.

NeoFace is a new form of biometric identification which police say can improve efficiency and deliver justice more quickly. If the six-month trial proves successful, the system could be rolled out to police forces across the country.

However, the increasing use of various recognition systems, used in conjunction with CCTV or even social media, has caused concern among civil liberty campaigners.

How does NeoFace work?

The software works by identifying two key elements of the face – geometry and texture – according to the BBC.  It then uses an algorithm to compare markers such as the distance between the eyes or the colour of the skin to compare photographs on an existing police database.

Advantages of the system:
  • Time saving

Using facial recognition software instead of manually comparing mugshots could save police officers "tens of thousands of hours of work", according to Chief Inspector Chris Cockerill, and will mean justice is delivered faster.

  • High success rate

According to the maker, the software offers a "high degree of accuracy" even when analysing low-resolution images such as CCTV. Leicestershire police say a positive match was made in seconds "45 per cent of the time", according to the Daily Telegraph.

"It is amazing to be able to sort through 92,000 images in a matter of moments and it is going to be such a useful tool to officers out on the street, from low-level crime like shoplifting to murder scenes", said Hilary Gazzard, identification officer at Leicestershire Police.

Where else is this type of technology being used?

Facial recognition software is already widely used internationally, with many airports using the technology at border controls. The FBI gathers biometric data on millions of people as part of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) programme in order to 'protect national security'.

Facebook has been using basic software to suggest tags for photos and is set to introduce a more sophisticated version called "DeepFace", which can supposedly "almost match" the human brain's ability to distinguish between faces.

The software has also been used in targeted advertising for specific ages and genders, most recently in Tesco garages by Amscreen. Simon Sugar, CEO of the digital advertising company admitted that it sounded "like something out of Minority Report", but said that it would "change the face of British retail", according to the Guardian.

Civil liberty concerns

The software poses a "critical threat" to privacy, according to civil liberty campaigners. They raise the issue of consent, saying that people's data are being recorded without their permission and without giving them the opportunity to opt out.

The technology requires urgent regulation "while we still have a shred of privacy left", argues Dr Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield.

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