Facebook Twitter YouTube SoundCloud RSS

NeoFace: How Anonymous Are We To Big Brother Police Agencies?

Pippa King
21st Century Wire

In July 2014 it was reported that Leicestershire Police began a facial recognition system  trial in April of that year.

 According to Chief Inspector Chris Cockerill, “We’re very proud to be the first UK Police force to evaluate this new system.”

The biometric system, called NeoFace, was being trialled for six months taking images of members of the public captured from video and photographs taken from CCTV, police body-worn video, digital cameras or even smartphones (according to the police’s own industry publication The Police Oracle), then checking the facial images with NeoFace biometric software to see if there was a match to any of the 92,000 facial images Leicestershire Police held on their Custody Image Management (CIM) System. 92,000 facial images of arrestees, some of which were not guilty of any crime.

This ground breaking use of facial recognition by a police force largely went unnoticed by the general public. It was not clear exactly what this facial recognition system was/is capable of.

It is interesting to note that rather than Neoface having access to the Custodial Image Management (CIM) system, images from the CIM database are being uploaded on the NeoFace system. According to Identity unit manager Andy Ramsay, “…when our CIM database was uploaded on to the NeoFace system, not one of the 92,000 images was rejected”(original article here). Members of the public’s faces are being transferred onto another, relatively unknown, system. Presumably a database that NeoFace may have access to as part of a service licence agreement, which would pose the question of who exactly is the data controller. Who is processing the facial biometric data?

The company supplying the software, NEC, has a promotional video making the capabilities of the software seem like a scene out of the film ‘Minority Report’.

Watch NEC’s disturbingly dark sales pitch for NeoFace here:

NEC promotes their NeoFace product Leicestershire Police are using for ‘safer cities’. Their facial recognition system, being deployed in over 40 countries, is aimed as a tool for government security and border control agencies,. NEC’s unique selling point makes their software compatible with low resolution images collected from CCTV and therefore useful to police agencies:

NEC NeoFace technology’s strength lies in its tolerance of poor quality. Highly compressed surveillance videos and images, previously considered of little to no value, are now usable evidence and leading to higher rates of positive identification.  With NeoFace’s proven ability to match low resolution facial images, including images with low resolutions down to 24 pixels between the eyes…

Chicago Police Department’s first conviction using a facial recognition system happened in June 2014. Pierre Martin was sentenced to 22 years for two armed robberies he carried out in January and February 2013. Shortly after the robberies Chicago Police announced that Martin was identified using facial recognition software – NeoFace. The software had proved to work and obviously piqued the interest of UK polices forces. How could a country with the most CCTV cameras per head of population globally, resist running a facial recognition system behind all that hardware?

1-NeoFace-BiometricsTo find out more about NeoFace and its capabilities a Freedom of Information request was sent to Leicestershire Police. It revealed that after nine months (April 2014 – January 2015) NeoFace is still conducting a trial, even though in October 2014 Security News Desk reported that Leicestershire Police, “has made the decision to purchase the software and continue using it” – which would have satisfied the six month trial period from April 2014.

According to the Leicester Mercury article the Leicestershire Police force cited in the Freedom of Information request reply, the force’s use of the technology was that NeoFace:

  • “radically cut the time it takes to identify suspects caught on CCTV”
  • “can also analyse footage taken on the digital cameras which many officers now wear”
  • “analysing dozens of measurements and features on the subject’s face”
  • “can save officers hours, even days by cutting out the need to go through its database of detained people’s photographs one by one”

When asked specifically in the Freedom of Information request – Can NeoFace be used in real time in a live scenario? The answer from the police was to refer to the above Leicester Mercury article with its somewhat vague description of how they are using the facial recognition system. Not what it is capable of. A communication has been sent back to Leicestershire Police asking them to clarity further, as some features of NeoFace’s capabilities are “Real-time video surveillance against watch lists” and “Generates real-time alerts to reduce security threats”. Are we being watched through our extensive CCTV network, being evaluated for our threat level?

Andy Ramsay, manager of the force’s Identity Unit ending comment in the Leicester Mercury article is somewhat surprising and quite concerning:

“Besides the speed it’s also impressive because it can even find family members related to the person we’re trying to identify.”

How this feature is of benefit to the police is quite baffling and an unusual, fairly unreliable, feature of facial recognition software so must surely be questionable on ethical grounds.

Leicestershire Police’s responsibilities cover a population of around one million people. Less than a tenth of the population, even if they reside in Leicestershire Police’s remit, are on the CIM photograph database (or should we say the NeoFace database). The police force would not state how much the system cost due to commercial exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act, but to have a feature that can “find family members” would suggeste a feature that would be used on a far larger, wider photograph database. Maybe an unnecessary feature to have on a relatively small database – perhaps a feature to use on a larger, national database?

Facial Recognition Police National Database

On the 4th March 2013 the first UK Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material was appointed after the position was created in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The current ‘Biometrics’ Commissioner is Alastair MacGregor QC.

In November 2014 Alastair MacGregor published the first annual report by his office.   As Biometric Commissioner his remit only covers DNA and fingerprints. However, in his report he noted the police force’s use of facial recognition technology. In January 2014 he had been made aware that:

“…the police were actively investigating the possibility of uploading custody photographs to the Police National Database (‘the PND’) and of applying automated facial recognition technology to those images. I asked to be kept abreast of developments in that connection and of any relevant pilot testing. At the beginning of April of 2014 I was invited to attend a meeting in Durham of the ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] Facial Recognition Working Group. At that meeting I was informed that some 12 million custody photographs had been uploaded to the PND and that an automated searching mechanism had ‘gone live’ five days previously.” (page 105 point 340)

Biometric-EyeHis response to the Chair of the ACPO Facial Recognition Working Group, Chief Constable Michael Barton of Durham Constabulary, raised concerns about acceptability, inclusion of innocent individuals, the scope of the searches being made from CCTV and body worn cameras, absence of rigorous testing and reliability and that no public or parliamentary debate had been had. In his report from November 2014 he had seen “little to suggest that significant progress has been made in relation” to his concerns.

Alastair MacGregor also made the observation that “several million custody photographs – including those of hundreds of thousand of individuals who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, an offence – have been loaded to the PND and that more are being loaded to it each day” and that these uploaded images (whether from CCTV or some other source) are compared to the archived custody photographs” also on the PND database.

So it seems the Police National Database (PND) holds not just custodial photographs but also photographs from CCTV and body worn cameras – evidence gathered by police in the public domain on our streets, without the public’s blissful awareness.

This may be the reason why the initial reported figures held on the new PND database of facial images has risen from 12 million in November 2014, the figure Alastair MacGregor gave to the Science and Technology Committee’s oral evidence session regarding the current and future uses of biometric data and technologies, to the to 18 million reported by the BBC in February 2015. An extra 6 million mug shots added to the PND database in little over 2 months.

In the same BBC article Andy Ramsay, identification manager at Leicestershire Police, told BBC Newsnight the force now had a database with 100,000 custody photos logged – an increase of 8,000 new mug shots since November 2014.

These hidden database images are increasing at an alarming rate. If the PND database keeps expanding at the rate of 6 million faces every two months then whole of the population of the UK could be on the database by 2016, as with Leicestershire Police, they would only need another 13 months and the whole of the one million people in their jurisdiction could be logged on their facial recognition database, without their knowledge.

Is this being alarmist? Maybe so, but at the moment the police seem like children in a candy shop with this technology with no oversight, discussion, transparency or overt sign to the general public they are potentially having their biometrics logged and stored on these databases.

So what is being done? As always technology and its use falls woefully behind any legislation, even the debate on whether we should be using this facial recognition system on our ‘free’ population for mundane day to day activities has yet to be had and would surely bring up whether covert snooping with this technology on the population is ethically questionable.

Lib Dem David Lawes MP has written to the Home Office expressing his concerns along with Cons David Davis MP who has also aired his worries. As of November 2014, Alastair MacGregor’s stated in the Homes of Commons Oral Evidence session:

It is my understanding that at the moment CAST [the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology ] is looking at the algorithm applied to images on the police national database.” Lord Bates, in a reply on 9th February 2015 to a written question by Lord Scriven on the topic, answered – “The Government is reviewing the framework within which the police use these custody images, and expects to be able to report in the Spring [2015] “.

Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted springs to mind. In the meantime who knows what type of biometric profiling we are being subjected to without our knowledge? We will be twelve months further down the line of the PND facial recognition database going ‘live’ before any form of scrutiny takes place. But when we have a ‘Biometrics’ Commissioner whose remit does not even stretch to facial recognition, the most ubiquitous biometric technology at this moment in time, the steps of progress for the police intrusion into our lives seems to advance whilst any privacy or civil liberties for the general population rapidly erode.

In the words of first UK Commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material: 

“…a searchable police database of facial images arguably represents a much greater threat to individual privacy than searchable databases of DNA profiles or fingerprints

21WIRE featured author Pippa King is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on digital privacy and the emerging issues regarding RFID, biometrics and surveillance. See more of Pippa’s work and research at State of Surveillance and Biometrics in Schools.

READ MORE POLICE STATE NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Police State Files



Get Your Copy of New Dawn Magazine #203 - Mar-Apr Issue
Get Your Copy of New Dawn Magazine #203 - Mar-Apr Issue