Police chiefs in the UK have announced their intention to provide officers with a mobile facial recognition tool. The tool, known as operator initiated facial recognition (OIFR), utilizes NEC’s NeoFace facial recognition algorithm and is being trialled jointly by South Wales, Gwent, and Cheshire police. The Police National Database-linked tool is set to be rolled out nationwide in 2024. The National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) plans to increase the use of retrospective facial recognition (RFR) software by 100% by May of that year. While the technology can save time when identifying suspects, the NPCC emphasizes the need to balance its use with individuals’ right to privacy.
The OIFR app, described by South Wales Police as an “on-street” intelligence tool, allows officers to compare photos taken on their phones with a predetermined watchlist of suspects primarily consisting of custody images. The app then ranks the potential matches, presenting the six most likely possibilities to the officers. The app is limited to situations where individuals are unable to provide their details for various reasons. Once the search is completed, the image and biometric data are immediately deleted.
During a three-month trial conducted by South Wales Police, the app was used 42 times to scan the biometric information of 35 people. This resulted in 20 follow-up actions, including 11 arrests. The trial detected some limitations, such as obstructions in photos and difficulty obtaining clear images of deceased individuals after accidents.
The NPCC’s announcement did not mention the ongoing legal issues surrounding the retention of custody images by UK police. In a 2012 ruling, the High Court found the retention of custody images in the Police National Database to be unlawful due to the treatment of unconvicted individuals’ information the same way as that of convicted individuals. Despite this ruling, millions of custody images are still being unlawfully retained. The NPCC recently launched a program in partnership with the Home Office to establish consistency and coordination in how custody images are retained, processed, and used.
The use of facial recognition technology by UK law enforcement is expanding rapidly, with plans for nationwide deployment. However, concerns about oversight and the need for clear legal frameworks have been raised by various individuals and organizations. The Home Office maintains that there is already a comprehensive legal framework in place to regulate the use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies in policing. The NPCC is committed to embracing science and technology to drive reform in policing and plans to launch its Science and Technology Committee to advance the adoption of new technologies.