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Tuesday, October 13, 1998 Published at 18:48 GMT 19:48 UK


Candid camera for criminals

Three steps to criminal-spotting

A revolutionary surveillance system that can pin-point known criminals as they walk along in a crowd is being put to the test in a London borough.

The Mandrake face recognition system will seek out 'target faces' in the closed circuit television (CCTV) footage in the Newham area from Wednesday.

[ image: 140 camera sites are monitored by the security control centre]
140 camera sites are monitored by the security control centre
Councillor Ian Corbett said the decision to go ahead with the £60,000 six-month trial was made in response to the concerns of local residents.

"We've done surveys recently and 60% of the population said that crime prevention was the No 1 issue in the community," Mr Corbett said.

But fears of innocent people being identified by mistake have lead civil liberties groups to condemn the system and call for it to be tightly regulated.

Making a match

Newham has a network of 140 street cameras as well as 11 mobile camera units.

Images beamed into the council's security centre in East Ham will be compared with a database of target faces supplied by police.

Police Chief Supt David Armond: "Habitual offenders will be targeted"
The system can isolate the targets from the crowds of people appearing on CCTV. When a match is made the computer highlights the target and sounds an alarm.

An operator then checks the image and decides if it is necessary to contact the police.

[ image: Perfect match: The police image flashes on right of screen]
Perfect match: The police image flashes on right of screen
The police in the area see the system as a way of making CCTV more efficient.

"The people who go onto the system will be convicted criminals," said Chief Superintendent David Armond.

Depending on the success of the trial, other targets like paedophiles could also be scanned. The system could also be used to help track down missing persons.

Advanced technology

Mandrake is the first identification system to be able to work from moving pictures. It has been designed by Software Systems International which has been concentrating on identification systems for several years.

Less advanced systems are already in operation, including one which compares pictures of criminals with individuals crossing the Mexican border.

One state in the US is using a database of millions of pictures to check on people who may be entering into more than one marriage, and another state is checking for duplicate drivers' licence applications in the same way.

Pat Oldcorn, Software Systems: "The human element will have to come in"
"The ability to capture a moving face is quite a new innovation and makes a lot of difference to being able to work with things like CCTV," Software Systems marketing manager Pat Oldcorn said.

However she acknowledges that the computer will not always strike a perfect match.

"We do expect that we will get a little bit of difference in interpretation because sometimes it will pick up a face at a three-quarters angle. We will need to use the human element to check the authenticity of the picture," she said.

Big brother concerns

It is the risk of error that has the civil liberties group Liberty most concerned.

[ image: The computer recognises a volunteer during a demonstration]
The computer recognises a volunteer during a demonstration
"The accuracy of facial mapping is very limited," campaigns manager Liz Parratt said.

"For example, you need only to look at a handful of photos of celebrities to see how different the same people can look in different photos."

"The claim that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear is rubbish. What the police call an 80% success rate is what we would call a one in five chance of a mistake."

Ms Parratt said that even if the system did work, it would have to be carefully regulated to protect people's privacy.

Councillor Ian Corbett: "People have the right to live without fear"
But Councillor Corbett said he was most concerned about the civil liberties of innocent people.

A reduction in the crime rate in Newham over the next six months will persude the Labour-dominated council to continue with the system.

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