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Forces trial facial recognition phone app to help identify offenders

Two forces developing facial recognition technology are trialing its use on mobile phones to identify wanted suspects

Gwent and South Wales Police have begun using an app to identify wanted suspects at the point of intervention.

They are the first in the UK to test the technology in a three month pilot.

A group of 70 officers are using Operator Initiated Facial Recognition (OIFR) on mobile phones which compares a watchlist against a photo taken by its camera.

The aim is to see if the app is able to confirm the identity of a wanted suspect almost instantly even if that suspect provides false or misleading details.

Images are typically supplied from CCTV, mobile phone footage or social media. These images are then compared against the two custody reference databases of both forces which contain in excess of 600,000 images.

After a search is made, the technology creates 200 possible matches. If the operator determines a match has been made, they will inform the investigating officer.

Assistant Chief Constable Ian Roberts, of Gwent Police, said: “This tool can also provide identification of someone who is unconscious or seriously injured and unable to communicate who they are. By using this technology, we are preventing harm, helping those in need and keeping our communities safe.”

The technology will be used where there is belief that an offence has been committed or as part of an investigation.

South Wales was successfully challenged in the courts in 2019 over the use of live facial recognition technology. 

The Metropolitan Police has also been using Live AFR in targeted operations in specific locations. 

Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick has backed the technology saying critics are “ill informed” and compared the widespread use of image sharing by the public on social media.

The pilot forces argue the innovation is the next step into digital policing that will save over-stretched officers time.

ACC Roberts said: “Embracing technology and innovation is an important part of policing and how we continue to keep people safe. This new mobile app will be a valuable tool to help officers to identify vulnerable or missing people, saving time and reuniting loved ones quicker.” 

Former government minister, South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Alun Michael, made clear he was giving political support to the pilot scheme.

“I undertake close scrutiny of the operational decisions on the introduction of technology and subject each new step to independent oversight and scrutiny because of the ethical and social concerns that have been expressed over the use of facial recognition technology,” he said.

Mr Michael said the two issues at the heart of the arguments over the technology were privacy and the demand to take offenders off the streets.

“I can provide assurance to the public that we are getting that balance right. We are committed to protecting human rights as well as keeping the public safe,” he said.

The PCC added that one of the outcomes would be enabling people who come into contact with officers being eliminated from enquiries much earlier.

Mr Michael said: “It's important to remember that police officers have always been able to spot a person who is wanted for a crime and stop them in the street.

"The difference with the use of this technology is simply the speed and accuracy with which the individual can be identified and arrested and the speed with which a person who is not wanted by the police can be allowed to go on their way.”

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