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Officers will be able to cross-reference photos of suspects against a database of millions of custody images from their phones thanks to plans made by UK police chiefs to equip them with mobile-based visual recognition tools.

The tool, known as operator initiated facial recognition ( OIFR ), is currently being tested by South Wales, Gwent, and Cheshire police. It uses the NeoFace facial-recognition algorithm from software provider NEC.

The Police National Database&nbsp, ( PND)-linked tool will be made available nationwide in 2024, according to the National Police Chief’s Council ( NPCC), and further plans call for the police to use retrospective facial-recognition ( RFR ) software by 100 % by May of that year.

While the technology” can cut the amount of time spent trying to identify an offender from days and months to just minutes,” according to Jeremy Vaughan, chief constable at South Wales Police ( SWP ) and the NPCC’s national lead on facial recognition,” we recognize the need to balance the use of new technology with the right to privacy.”

The OIFR app, which South Wales Police refer to as” an on-street intelligence tool,” functions by automatically comparing the photos taken by officers with a predetermined “watchlist” of suspects that is primarily composed of custody images.

After conducting a search, the app will reorder the watchlist matches from most likely to least likely, displaying the six most probable matches for officers ‘ phones to determine the accuracy of the match.

SWP noted that the app should only be used in circumstances where a person is unable to provide their information due to death, unconsciousness, age-related mental health issues, or incapacity brought on by alcohol or drugs. It may also be fairly suspected that they provided misleading information. The force claimed that after a search is conducted, the image taken on the wireless device and biometric data are automatically and instantly deleted.

SWP investigation

The force claimed to have deployed the app-based OIFR tool 42 times to scan the genetic data of 35 people in a breakdown of the three-month trial that SWP conducted at the beginning of 2022.

This resulted in 20 follow-up actions, including 11 arrests, the reporting of four people for summons for prior offenses and the” supporting measures” of five people.

The SWP claimed in a separate Visual Recognition Equality Impact Assessment that the app’s repeated use of the same subject can account for the discrepancy between the frequency of scans and the number of people scanned.

It pointed out, for instance, that one subject’s face was obscured by clothing and that it was necessary to take multiple pictures of another subject because” they were deceased following a deadly RTC]road traffic collision.”

The Met and South Wales Police’s research, which found” large improvement” in the accuracy of their visual recognition systems when using particular settings, was likewise mentioned. When the technology was published in April 2023, both forces reaffirmed their commitment to using it.

According to the equality assessment, about a fourth of the people South Wales Police photographed came from racial minorities. According to a web page for the South Wales Police’s grant program, the policing area of the force is about 1.3 million people, “6.7 % of whom are from Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic backgrounds.”

Unconstitutional image retention in custody

Long-standing concerns about the legality of how certain genetic information is being stored by UK police, particularly the custody images that police use to compile their facial-recognition watchlists, were not mentioned in either the NPCC announcement or the SWP OIFR trial breakdown.

The High Court ruled in 2012 that the six-year retention period was excessive and that information about people who were eventually convicted was being treated in the same way as information regarding those who had not been found guilty. As a result, the PND’s retention of custody images was deemed immoral. Millions of custody images are also being illegally retained despite the 2012 ruling.

The NPCC lead for records management, Lee Freeman, stated in a letter to another general constables to discuss some of the concerns regarding custody image retention in February 2022 that the possible unlawful retention of an estimated 19 million images “poses an important risk in terms of possible litigation, police legitimacy, and wider support and challenge in our use of these images for technologies such as physical recognition.”

South Wales Police was contacted by Computer Weekly to discuss its response to the problem, but the NPCC was instead consulted.

According to an NPCC spokesperson,” Custody images are one of the most important sources of intelligence for front line officers and investigators, but policing needs to ensure transparency and legitimacy in the way we control the use of this important genetic information.” In order to ensure consistency and coordination throughout UK policing in how it retains, processes, and then uses custody images, especially in the use of physical recognition,” a national program between police and the Home Office has just been launched” [in October 2023].

To ensure adherence to agreed-upon policies and legislation, we will agree to and put into place a solid management regime for custody images through the program. To ensure that we are holding data freely and responsibly, both now and in the future, it is essential to public confidence that this program is adopted nationwide.

While the program has not yet been made public, the spokesperson added that it will aim to establish a management system for custody images and review all presently held data by UK police forces over the course of two years.

expanding use of visual recognition quickly

The NPCC’s announcement about the OIFR roll-out and its plan to increase RFR use is consistent with a larger effort by government and law enforcement organizations to spread the use of facial recognition technology throughout UK policing.

Gavin Stephens, the chair of the NPCC, stated in a keynote address on November 15, 2023, at the Council’s annual Summit in London, that the technology would” significantly” contribute to the transformation of UK policing into” an effective science-led service.” He also cited research by South Wales Police that found its retroactive use of technology has shortened the time it takes to identify suspects from 14 days to just minutes.

Through the use of retrospective facial recognition, the exact force identifies 200 suspects each month, he claimed.

Other forces in England and Wales are also expanding their RFR deployments quickly, frequently without little oversight. &nbsp,

According to Home Office information provided to The i newspaper and the human rights organization Liberty in accordance with freedom of information laws, forces conducted a little over 85, 000 longitudinal facial recognition searches of the PND last year, which is more than three times as many as in 2021. According to data for the first four months of this year, the total is expected to exceed 130, 000, an additional 52 % annual increase.

Although 13 of the 45 regional police forces in the UK denied using longitudinal facial recognition in 2022, the Home Office data reveals that thousands of searches were conducted between them.

According to independent data gathered by Liberty and The Ferret, Police Scotland conducted more than 2, 000 longitudinal facial-recognition searches in the first four months of 2023. Over the previous five years, this practice has tripled, from merely under 1, 300 searches per year to almost 4, 000 in 2022.

Chris Philp, the minister of policing, was pushing for facial recognition technology to be implemented by police forces across England and Wales in May 2023, and he will probably push to integrate the technology with police body-worn video cameras. This was revealed in an interim report into upcoming British government data reforms.

Later, in a letter to police chiefs in October 2023, he outlined the significance of utilizing new policing technologies and urged them to increase the number of live facial recognition ( LFR ) searches they are conducting and to use them much more widely.

Speaking at a fringe Conservative Party Conference event at the beginning of the same month, Philp described his plans to integrate data from the police national database ( PDN), the passport office, and other national databases with facial recognition technology ( nbsp ) in order to assist in apprehending shoplifters and criminals.

Campaigners, academics, and Scottish biometrics commissioner Brian Plastow criticized the plan, saying it was “egregious and possibly illegal” to “link the UK’s passport database with facial recognition systems.”

lack of control

Some people are worried about the lack of oversight regarding biometric technologies in the UK and have called for obvious legal frameworks to be put in place, despite UK police’s plans to significantly increase their use of facial recognition.

Fraser Sampson, the talkative biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner for England and Wales, discussed a number of problems with the way UK police had approached deploying its facial-recognition capabilities in an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly. He also cautioned that the government’s proposed data reforms could jeopardize future oversight of police technology.

Sampson believes that having” a very strong, very distinct, instinctive oversight accountability framework” is the best way to address the complexity surrounding facial recognition and other biometric capturing technologies.

Others have even called for unambiguous legal frameworks relating to biometrics, such as the House of Lords inquiry into the use of cutting-edge analytic technologies by the police, an&nbsp, the UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and Paul Wiles, a former commissioner for England and Wales who served as an advisor on LFR until July 2019.

However, according to The Home Office, there is already” a comprehensive legal framework” in place in the UK to address police use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies.

In his Summit keynote, NPCC chair Stephens went into more detail about his plans to revolutionize policing with cutting-edge science and technology. These plans, along with facial recognition, will also include the development of drones, an updated modern fingerprint matching system, and robotic process automation to handle administrative tasks.

Stephens added that the NPCC would establish its own Science and Technology Committee to promote the use of innovative policing technologies. In the upcoming years, he said,” I think science and technology will be the single biggest driver of reform in policing.”

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