How facial recognition tech could change the police force

Facial recognition technology at its most basic level has existed since the 1960s, when an American team experimented to see if a computer could use a rudimentary scanner to map a person’s hairline, eyes, and nose.

Today, the technology has advanced massively and is used in a variety of public spaces to improve security across the UK.

Back in April, the government announced a £55 million investment set to expand facial recognition technology, including mobile units that can be deployed on high streets to identify individuals wanted by the police to crackdown on retail crime.

The investment will be made over the next four years, while the £4 million for mobile units will be spent over the next year.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said the increase in funding was “sending a message” to criminals.

“Whether they are from serious organised criminal gangs, repeat offenders or opportunistic thieves – who think they can get away with stealing from these local businesses or abusing shopworkers, enough is enough,” he said.

The story so far

Facial recognition technology is currently only being used by two police forces in the UK, those being the Met and South Wales Police.

They are testing the innovation with the help of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) which provides cutting-edge measurement in science, engineering and technology.

The NPL test plan was specifically designed to help identify any impact this technology may have on any protected characteristics, in particular race, age and sex.

A report conducted by the NPL on the use of facial recognition technology in the two police forces was published last year, which they said gave a better understanding of what setting the algorithm can be operated at where there is no statistical significance between demographic performance.

The Met and South Wales Police

The Met has published examples of how the technology has been helping to reduce crime. For example, on 9 April, 12 arrests were made with the assistance of Live Facial Recognition (LFR) technology.

Officers arrested a man who breached his sexual harm prevention order following an alert at a previous deployment in Clapham.

An investigation following this alert found the man was sending explicit images to children. He has been charged with two counts of sexual communication with a child and has been remanded in custody.

Lindsey Chiswick, the Met’s director of intelligence said they are “guided by data” as part of ‘A New Met for London.'

She said: “The data for our deployments is available to the public and shows the technology is outperforming what an independent study predicted.”

Chiswick added that reports into law enforcement use of this technology found the public are “mostly supportive.”

She commented: “It’s vital we bring communities in London with us so we are continuing work with independent advisory groups and invite them to deployments."

The use of facial recognition technology is proven to assist in freeing up police time and apprehending criminals. For those not in the know, there are three main types of facial recognition technology. The aforementioned Live Facial Recognition tech compares a live camera feed of faces against a predetermined watchlist to find a possible match that generates an alert.

Retrospective Facial Recognition (RFR) is used after an event, and compares still images of faces of unknown subjects against a reference image database in order to identify them.

Finally, Operator Initiated Facial Recognition (OIFR) is a mobile phone use of facial recognition which compares a photograph of a person’s face taken on a mobile phone to the predetermined watchlist to assist an officer to identify a subject.

These are three types of recognition that are being used by both police services in conjunction with the NPL. South Wales Police have used the technology in a similar way to the Met as they are both being monitored by NPL.

When they announced they were going to implement the technology into their policy work at the start of 2023, Chief Constable Jeremy Vaughan, said: “My priority will always be to protect the public while relentlessly pursuing those people determined to cause harm in our communities."

He added: “I believe the public will continue to support our use of all the available methods and technology to keep them safe and thanks to the work of the National Physical Laboratory and the results of its independent evaluation I believe we are now in a stronger position than ever before to be able to demonstrate that the use of facial recognition technology is fair, legitimate, ethical and proportionate.”

The concerns

The public reaction to facial recognition technology being used by the police has been mixed. A 2022 joint survey by Ada Lovelace Institute and the Alan Turing Institute found that while only 12 per cent of people said they had a good knowledge and experience of the technology, 86 per cent of the participants believed that police’s use of it is beneficial.

However, the facial recognition technology does tend to conjure images of a dystopian society and many members of the public are concerned with the ethical and privacy issues surrounding the innovation. One of the groups opposing the use of facial recognition tech by the police is Big Brother Watch.

Director Silkie Carlo said in response to the government’s latest funding into the tech: “Criminals should be brought to justice, but papering over the cracks of broken policing with Orwellian tech is not the solution. “It is completely absurd to inflict mass surveillance on the general public under the premise of fighting theft whilst police are failing to even turn up to 40 per cent of violent shoplifting incidents or to properly investigate many more serious crimes.

“Rather than resourcing police to actively pursue people who pose a risk to the public, the government’s investment in facial recognition cameras for retail offences relies on shoplifters walking in front of marked police cameras and as such will effectively target the lowest hanging fruit."

The risk of wrongful arrest is another of the main concerns surrounding the use of facial recognition by law enforcement.

Both police forces said if someone is not on a watchlist, they will never store their biometric data and it will automatically be deleted.


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