UK Cops Brag About Using Facial Recognition Software To Capture… A Shoplifter

from the what-an-amazing-time-to-be-alive dept

Facial recognition software is the law enforcement frontier. Rather than having to build a lineup, law enforcement can just run suspected criminals’ faces against the collected photos of criminals and non-criminals alike in hopes of a positive identification.

At this point, it’s still very touch-and-go. Technology hasn’t kept pace with law enforcement’s dreams of an accurate and speedy way of ID’ing suspects. As of 2008, the FBI was granting the contractor behind its system a 1-in-5 margin of error. Yes, a 20% chance of nabbing the wrong person was considered acceptable in a live system.

The technology continues to improve, but it still requires clear photos taken nearly head-on for best results. Despite these limitations, law enforcement agencies continue to take these systems live, almost always without putting together some sort of privacy/data disposal policy. But we’re all supposed to be fine with this because these agencies are using this tech to track down dangerous criminals and/or terrorists, right?

British cops used a new facial recognition system to snare a shoplifting suspect whom they say was automatically identified due to his resemblance to criminal relatives, The Register has learned.

And, apparently, shoplifters. Not only are British cops bragging up an expensive system’s ability to nab an extremely low-level criminal, it’s also playing up the fact that the system failed to pick the suspect out of the “lineup.” Instead, it just seized on the fact that the suspect resembled other criminals in its database. Not exactly comforting… at least not for citizens who may resemble suspected criminals and vice versa.

UK law enforcement, on the other hand, seems rather encouraged by the software’s inability to correctly pick out a shoplifting suspect from a digital lineup.

The Metropolitan Police Force is due to visit Leicestershire this week to scope out NeoFace, it is understood, while the Essex and Kent forces have already been to check out the system. French and Romanian officers have also been in contact to express an interest.

The saving grace of this imperfect system is that it can’t directly be used as evidence.* It can only guide a “line of inquiry.” The downside is that photos are retained for five years and the Leicestershire police seem very happy that the software is so good at detecting familial members, rather than the people they’re looking for.

*I’m sure the UK police are equally familiar with the concept of parallel construction.

On one hand, this isn’t entirely unlike the old photo books police use to identify suspects. On the other hand, NeoFace doesn’t just store photos of criminals. This is especially problematic in the UK, where CCTV wiring is the new kudzu. The Leicestershire Police has 90,000 photos in its database and that number should only be expected to expand rapidly, especially if coupled with NeoFace’s other offerings.

NeoFace Watch watches surveillance footage, constantly picking faces out of a crowd — and then storing those faces in a database, or matching them against a predefined watch list. NeoFace Smart ID is a smartphone and tablet app that allows for the real-time collection and identification of fingerprints, faces, voices, and other identifiable data at crime scenes.

We’re told these developments’ privacy implications are mitigated by the dangerous criminals they’ll be used to apprehend. And then it’s all undercut by law enforcement members excitedly talking about nabbing a shoplifter who sort of resembled two other people.

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Comments on “UK Cops Brag About Using Facial Recognition Software To Capture… A Shoplifter”

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30 Comments
wallyb132 (profile) says:

Everyday it gets worse.

My view of the DoJ, law enforcement and government in general has become so extremely jaded in recent years, especially when compared to others around me. Recently i’ve been asking myself how much of this has to do with the fact that I read and get my news the likes of Techdirt, Ars Technica, The Register, Torrent Freak and others on a daily basis, websites that specialize in reporting on government fuckery, or is it just simply because the government has become so screwed up and out of control…

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

  1. i disagree vehemently with some of your stands, but you are spot on here…

    2. keep in mind a couple things: MOST sheeple just want to live their lives and not keep up with current events, politics, etc, UNLESS THEY ARE ‘FORCED’ to for some reasons…
    while i am wired differently than that, i COMPLETELY understand that people have too much work, too many chores, kids to run around, etc, which leaves little time to actually dig into the issues the mainstream media ignores, or spews the status quo propaganda/lies Empire feeds them…
    in short: relying on the mainstream media, they don’t know what they don’t know…

    3. MOST people BARELY know how a computer (or internal combustion engine, for that matter) ‘works’ (hell, they barely know what a ‘file’ or subdirectory is), and thus when REALLY important political/societal issues arise which intersect with technical issues, their eyes glaze over…

    4. i keep repeating the bumper sticker i saw years ago:
    if you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention…

PaulT (profile) says:

Here’s the most interesting part:

“The officer came in with CCTV images of a shoplifting suspect he didn’t recognise. We ran his image through the facial recognition system and his father and brother both popped up, because the family all have strong and shared facial characteristics.”

Yeah, so they didn’t even catch him directly, they had to match his family first then go through them. Presumably, they then harassed those people first since they were already known to them and rather than the shoplifter. There may have been some very good reasons for that, but tracking someone’s entire family so that they can be identified is not going to make anyone more comfortable with these systems.

“”The system doesn’t discriminate,” Harper added. “Whether you are black or white, male or female, it works the same”

So, does this mean they don’t actually have any problems recognising races with darker skin like the HP webcams a few years ago, or does this just mean that they can claim plausible deniability when other races are harassed more by police based on the results?

Anonymous Coward says:

All that high end gear to catch a shop lifter – awesome!
I’m quite positive the tax payers are very pleased their hard earned contributions are being wisely spent. Other less important things like infrastructure maintenance can certainly wait a bit longer because new toys for the copperz is the highest priority.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

All that high end gear to catch a shop lifter – awesome!

Is that what you read? What I read was “All that high end gear to identify that someone in a store was related to a couple of people with a criminal background. Once they had that information, the decided that he is probably a criminal also so they either followed him until they caught him shoplifting, or immediately searched him and found stolen merchandise.”

My question is, how much is it going to cost to follow everyone related in some way to a criminal once they have been identified?

Anonymous Coward says:

As a techworker....

I would never convict anyone based on “Software” recognition. I would barely do it for human recognition depending upon the circumstance, but I will never fucking allow a machine TELL me who it most likely is.

I work on systems that constantly get shit wrong because of sloppy programing and bugs… fucking bugs, bugs, and more muther frakin bugs… dang the freeking bugs.

Did I mention the bugs?

My 5×6 would feel damn good because a bug put me there.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: As a techworker....

Even if the system worked perfectly, I still wouldn’t trust it. We’re talking about security cameras at a distance of 10 to 100 feet in unpredictable lighting and usually at the worst possible angle. Not exactly ideal circumstances for seeing that it is a face, let alone identifying it with any kind of certainty.

I’ve setup security systems. Amateur I admit, but I got to play with the good hardware. Expensive HD, low light cameras still don’t give enough information at a distance or an angle.

Case says:

Used as advertised

Well, that’s exactly what policing in the UK is about: Their central bogeymen are not the usual litany of terrorists and pedophiles (although those sure do make their appearances). What the UK public is scared witless of are “yobs”, or youths who engage in horrible acts such as using foul language, being generally loud and unruly, littering, or even petty vandalism and shoplifting. People from other countries might see that as young people being young, in the UK these “feral youths” are seen as an existential threat to the state, which will destroy all that is good and moral.

It is this fear which leads to cameras into every last bit of public space (and classrooms, bathrooms, care homes…), and an ever-increasing arsenal of punitive measures to get those caught back in line, from restraining orders against children playing ball to mandatory minimums for carrying pocket knives. Using facial recognition to catch shoplifters is not a case of screaming “terrorism” and then using the system for everyday policing. It is exactly what these systems were billed to do, and what people want them to do.

NB, in reality of course crime rates have been falling for decades, just as everywhere else. But don’t you get statistics in my moral panic!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Used as advertised

“Also, the desire for a uniformed youth marching in lockstep permeates all political leanings. Even the Guardian has run headlines of how increased use of profanity will be the end of the civilized world.”

Did… you just compare an opinion piece in the GVuardian about the level of swearing in general youth conversation with the Hitler youth? Wow.

Case says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Used as advertised

So, where exactly did you find the words “Hitler Youth” in my comment?

As for the majority, remember how Blair’s approval rating tanked after introducing ASBOs? How Cameron lost all chance of being elected after his “feral youth” comments? Right, me neither…

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Used as advertised

“So, where exactly did you find the words “Hitler Youth” in my comment?”

You didn’t. But, how else am I meant to interpret the words “uniformed youth marching in lockstep”? I’m sorry if you weren’t clear with your wording.

“As for the majority, remember how Blair’s approval rating tanked after introducing ASBOs? How Cameron lost all chance of being elected after his “feral youth” comments? Right, me neither…”

Nor me, but then ASBOs weren’t exactly the most important thing on the political agenda at that time, and many people who recognised the idiocy behind Cameron’s comments weren’t exactly rushing to vote Tory before that anyway.

Besides, Cameron wasn’t elected by a majority – not sure if you remember that or not?

Roger Strong (profile) says:

It's worse than that:

Before anyone says that a human could look at the image to make a final decision on whether its a match:

When you “run suspected criminals’ faces against the collected photos of criminals and non-criminals alike in hopes of a positive identification”, that collection will eventually include millions of people, if it doesn’t already. And the results will be returned with the closest matches at the top.

With that many people to compare against, you’re all but guaranteed that someone in the top results will be a dead ringer for your shoplifting suspect. Someone that a human officer – or jury – will take one look and conclude that the suspect and your computer match are one and the same. Or several dead ringers, letting police simply pick the one living closest to the crime scene.

What we have here is a way to automate identity theft; the computer takes an innocent person’s identity and links it to criminal activity.

Their names will probably be in the database – a match produced from a drivers’ license photo database or a security camera picture matched to a Visa purchase or bus pass use.

The next logical step is to automatically add a record saying “This person’s face was a close match for this crime.” After the system has been running for a few years, you query the database for the people with the most matches – despite no arrests – and investigate them more closely.

Years later someone can’t get a security clearance or airplane ticket or passport, because photo database software flagged them as a close match for a crime.

We’re going to need the right to ask in court whether we were identified as a suspect using a surveillance or suspect database, and if so, the right to show the jury the other close matches.

bob (profile) says:

high tech phrenology system

so if the system couldn’t detect the person in a lineup directly but used their similarity to other people to mark the person as a criminal…
isn’t that just a high tech phrenology system?
wouldn’t identifying the person by blood type to crooked relatives be even more effective than visual guessing at identifying a high risk person?

Padpaw (profile) says:

just wait until everything is criminalized. you could get arrested and thrown in jail for god knows what. you already have people’s doors being kicked in by heavily militarized SWAT by accident. let’s not forget that protesting has been labeled as low level terrorism by the government. Secret evidence and secret courts.

A populace that lives in fear of their overlords is a lot easier to control. Mark my words once your second amendment is removed by hook or crook, Americans are going to go through hell.

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