“It’s a reality we have to face,” UK police chief constable Simon Bailey wrote in an open letter on Friday announcing his company, Clearview AI, will offer to help the English police capture criminals using facial recognition technology for free. “The research has shown that it can be applied in a non-intrusive and efficient way to identify suspects, victim locations and provide a clear indication of a criminal’s attendance at a crime scene.”
The Police College, to which he belongs, has been running a short course on “identity analytics” for about a year and, according to an email, about 300 people have completed it. Following this and other free trials it is offering to chief constables and police and crime commissioners around the world (except in the UK). The data being offered is anonymised and aggregated. There are no users names in the trial data. Clearview AI has already worked with the UK police in Scotland (where it runs a similar training course) and will offer to run a service in Germany.
It’s a useful first step for the company. It’s also a provocative one.
Bailey emphasises that the police have to establish how the technology is to be used and managed. This, he states, is one of the reasons the police could undertake these trials – to develop methods of how technology can be used in a secure manner. (He points out there were privacy concerns around this research and that in that context the company was showing that it could be managed as a research tool.)
One problem will be selecting police officers and deploying the software. “If we are going to do things like deploying facial recognition to the public, we will have to identify the best people from our current recruitment pool,” Bailey said. “Police commanders from across the country could get access to it,” he explained, “but would have to trust that the profiling isn’t getting too aggressive.” It’s not clear at the moment if this is being tested with previous crime victims, which in some ways could be an even more intrusive situation. “This is information we should not be sharing at the moment,” says Bailey. “We’re only doing this because we think it could be useful.”
It’s also worrying that Britain’s chief police officers are mulling these issues. “As a society we tend to accept our police practices as our tools,” said Jeremy Oakes from the Policing Board, which recently declined to allow the installation of CCTV cameras on school buses. “When research shows that there is a technology that police can use in a non-intrusive way to help us identify and save lives – we need to look at it,” said Stephen Clarke, vice chair of the Civil Rights Defenders, another group that opposes the expansion of surveillance in the UK. “As a national police service using police power to help criminals, they should question what is being done here.”
It’s clear the clearview position is that the police don’t need a massive change in their handling of this and that it can help keep the public safe – something other startups do already. But could it also be a case of government stumbling into the police’s surveillance domain? It’s undeniable that after becoming Brexiters, Tory MPs believe their hardline approach to crime is the safest way to stop immigrants coming to Britain. Whether this approach is the best way to prevent crime remains to be seen.