BITN 903_04,05 (News

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18/11/11

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N E W S

Facial recognition software causes ‘civil liberty problems’
Cutting-edge face recognition technology used by Merseyside police has come under fire from experts and campaign groups, who say it could infringe the civil liberties of innocent people. Documents seen by The Big Issue in the North show that since 2008 more than £260,000 has been spent by the Liverpool force on a system called Colossus, manufactured by Surrey-based firm OmniPerception. Described as a “biometric search engine”, the technology can process a database of eight million images in one second, matching faces taken from sources including CCTV, mobile phones and traditional cameras. important part to play in fraud prevention, protection against identity theft and the defence of sensitive and vulnerable places and premises.” Other authorities across England known to have purchased OmniPerception technology include police forces in Hertfordshire and the City of London. A spokesman for Merseyside Police said: “We do not discuss specific uses of technology or tactics.”

Unauthorised access
He added: “The photographs taken during protests or demonstrations are done so to help in the prevention and detection of crime. All photos will be destroyed after the event unless there were any offences committed by a person in the photo. Should an offence have been committed the photographs are used as evidence in any future investigation.” Last week a senior Merseyside police detective, Mike Lawlor, was charged with six counts of unauthorised accessing of personal data controlled by the force. According to Nick Pickles, the director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, the case illustrates how information stored on databases can be abused.

Demonstrations
Intelligence teams are known to photograph and video protesters during public demonstrations, raising questions about whether these images, which are shared between forces, could be used as part of facial recognition databases. Merseyside police said it does not currently use images from outside agencies but has refused to give details of how it uses the OmniPerception system. Guy Herbert, general secretary of privacy campaign group NO2ID, said there were “huge problems of validity and civil liberty” with the use of the technology.

Facial recognition software can process eight million images a second

‘Chilling effect’
“They [the police] should have to have warrants and have reasonable suspicion to start gathering large amounts of information,” he said. “We should be worrying about two things: people being wrongly identified or falsely stigmatised with suspicion simply by being matched up on a database; and whether collecting databases of people’s movements obtained from photographs – often CCTV – is a
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legitimate thing for police to do.” Aaron Martin, a privacy and IT policy expert at the London School of Economics, called on police to explain how the face recognition technology is being used. “OmniPerception’s claims regarding the effectiveness and reliability of its Colossus system are incredibly bold and ought to be independently verified before Merseyside police invest any further in the technology,” he said. “There also needs to be much more public transparency around the provenance of the images in the Merseyside database. Where are these facial images being sourced from? Moreover, what is the extent of the police’s use of the facial recognition system? “I would hope that the police are restricting their use to

processing suspects at the station and not employing Colossus at public gatherings and marches, which would have an enormously chilling effect on legitimate speech and protest.”

‘Non-threatening’
But the chief executive of OmniPerception, Stewart Hefferman, has repeatedly dismissed privacy concerns around the technology. In a statement on the company’s website he said: “This modern obsession with face recognition as the enemy of privacy is a spurious and thoroughly unhelpful phenomenon. “Properly used, it’s absolutely non-threatening, and delivers huge benefits – improving safety and security in many areas of modern life. More secure identity management has an

Criminal conviction
“Such incidents are not confined to low level staff, but those working at a highly sensitive level,” he said. More than 900 police officers and staff breached the Data Protection Act in 2007-2010, with more than 240 receiving a criminal conviction. Under the terms of the act, anyone can file a request to find out what information is stored about them.
RYAN GALLAGHER

THE BIG ISSUE IN THE NORTH · 21-27 NOVEMBER 2011

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