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November 8, 2019

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Facial recognition

Facial recognition technology – where are we now?

Robert Watts, VP of Facial Recognition at Digital Barriers, discusses how facial recognition has taken the industry by storm, and where it is potentially heading.

Whilst not an entirely new concept, facial recognition technology has become one of the most debated issues this year. This is because vast advancements have enabled the technology to be deployed more broadly than simply at airport security gates.

The facial recognition we are aware of is known to work well in controlled, well-lit areas where an individual stands perfectly still in front of a scanning device with no accessories disrupting the technology. However, not all facial recognition technology is the same. Facial recognition can be deployed in challenging and uncontrolled situations, and be installed on mobile devices such as  police worn body-cameras, thereby servicing the needs of law enforcement and wider security professionals.

With this in mind, facial recognition not only has the propensity to improve operations by allowing officers to react in real-time, but ensuring transparency in addition to their safety and security. However, due to a lack of regulation and misconceptions around how the technology actually works, its roll-out has been a source for concern.

UK law enforcement is under immense pressure to perform with limited manpower and resources. Therefore, equipping them with the right technology to support their work, such as live-streaming body cameras with a facial recognition capability, could help improve efficiency whilst freeing-up valuable officer time.

The record-only body cameras currently in use are excellent at what they are designed to do, which is record footage of an incident that can later be used as after-the-fact evidence in court, but have limited use beyond that. With everyday consumer devices, such as smart-phones, already having the ability to live-stream video that is instantly uploaded to social media, it is frankly surprising that frontline police officers in charge of public safety are not being equipped with this capability.

Simply recording video from body-worn cameras does very little for the security of the officers and for proactive policing, because it fails to provide any information that officers on the ground don’t already know. This is why body cameras that can stream live video back to a central control room are becoming increasingly popular within the security and surveillance industries.

Body-worn cameras with live streaming capabilities can give frontline officers far higher levels of situational awareness and potentially save lives by letting support officers monitor incidents and provide vital information and advice as they unfold. Furthermore, by equipping these live-stream cameras with a facial recognition function, police are able to identify known criminals and suspects in real-time whilst on the move, significantly reducing reaction-time and improving their safety. It can equally play a role in making stop and search fairer by setting a higher bar for justification for a search, thus completely revolutionising frontline policing.

Facial recognition as a tool

In an ideal world, police officers would be able to memorise all the faces they see. However, only a very small percentage of people are able to do this, hence why facial recognition can be of real assistance by giving officers the tools to rapidly analyse the faces of persons of interest, networks of associated gang members, wanted criminals and terrorists. It does not need any prior personal engagement to recognise an individual, but simply images enrolled on to a pre-defined watch-list.

Facial recognition is not here to take over police work and make decisions for them. It is designed to act as a tool to support officers on the front-line by speeding up the process of identifying known criminals, whilst ignoring everyone else. No matter how accurate the technology is, there will always be a human officer making the final decision – no one has ever been arrested based on being flagged by the facial recognition solution alone. The technology simply alerts officers of a potential match, which they can then quickly confirm or reject. An innocent person flagged by the tech will then be deleted from the system completely. Imagine, for example, a busy entrance to a large concert. There is no way the security personnel will be able to scan the sea of faces fast enough whilst recognising those on existing watch-lists. A facial recognition solution, however, can significantly narrow this pool of people down to a handful of potential suspects, making the process of securing the area much more feasible, for the benefits of all attendees and staff.

We have moved well beyond the deployability argument from a technological perspective.

Facial recognition is here. The debate around it must therefore shift towards how it should be deployed. The apprehension around its use is not entirely surprising, as there has been a significant lack of information around how it works. This is why we argue there needs to be open discussion and education around the technology. Facial recognition should by no means be used by everyone and everywhere, yet I strongly believe it has a role to play within law enforcement to enhance public safety. This all starts at the top, with clear regulation in place. The way forward is to encourage proportionate, responsible and closely monitored pilots of facial recognition that will allow us to learn what works and what doesn’t – and making the process as transparent as possible to put people’s minds at rest.

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