Forced Entertainment - Tim on Wed, 19 Jun 2002 05:44:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> CCTV/face recognition

a news story and a feature last week in The Guardian (UK) about face
recognition software, CCTV surveillance and "exaggerated claims" by
maufacturers Visionics/FaceIt. Esp beautiful explanation of the system's
failure to spot a reporter whose face had been scanned for the system:

> "He passed our camera side on," said a spokesman for the borough, "so we were
> unable to detect him. This is obviously a weakness in the system."


Towns secretly testing 'spy' software
James Meek, science correspondent

Thursday June 13, 2002

A security system designed to automatically recognise people on the street
and report their whereabouts to a central control room is being tested
secretly in three places in Britain, according to the American

Three other areas - the London borough of Newham, Tameside in Greater
Manchester, and Birmingham - are publicly using the system, known as
FaceIt, made by Visionics.

A spokeswoman for the company, Frances Zelazny, said some councils had not
yet announced their use of the system because it was still "in the pilot

The Home Office said it was up to local authorities whether they bought
facial recognition software, which works as an extension of CCTV networks,
and the government did not know which councils were using it.

The expansion of the FaceIt system in Britain comes amid growing doubts on
both sides of the Atlantic as to whether the technology works. Civil
liberties groups in the US claim Visionics has exaggerated the software's
ability to pick out "known" faces in crowds.

In Newham, where the council claims non residential burglaries fell by 39%
in the six months after FaceIt was installed in 1998, the local police
officer responsible for providing photographs of ex-offenders to the
council security service told the Guardian that FaceIt had never spotted a
live target.

"There have never been more than 20 or 25 faces on the system," said
Detective Inspector Ian Chiverton. "They've been weeded on a monthly
basis. We've chosen what we call our nominal criminals, so they would be
convicted burglars and rob bers, but only one facial shot was ever put on.
And there's never been a recognition of that facial shot."

Visionics denied this. However, the council refused to provide details.

FaceIt failed to spot a Guardian reporter who voluntarily put his face
into Newham's database and visited the areas covered by the cameras.

"He passed our camera side on," said a spokesman for the borough, "so we
were unable to detect him. This is obviously a weakness in the system."


Robo cop 

Some of Britain's 2.5 million CCTV cameras are being hooked up to a facial
recognition system designed to identify known criminals. But does it work?
James Meek has his mugshot taken, then hits the streets of east London -
where they claim it reduces crime - to see if he gets spotted

James Meek

Thursday June 13, 2002

I have a feeling that I am being watched by invisible eyes. Once this
might have been interpreted as a symptom of mental illness. But just as
those who jabber to themselves on the tube are now assumed to be talking
on hands-free mobiles, my persecution complex of yesterday has become
today's sane awareness of constant monitoring by CCTV cameras in public
places. There is, however, a new stage to my mania. The They who are
watching me, I believe, may not even be people. It may be a computer which
knows what I look like, and when it sees me, it will recognise me, and
sound the alarm.

This is not paranoia. Not entirely. It is London in 2002. Specifically, it
is the east London borough of Newham, which has - with the backing of the
Home Office - linked a computer to a small number of its hundreds of CCTV
cameras and loaded the computer with a piece of software supposedly
capable of recognising the faces of people on the street.

For three and a half years now, Newham council has been feeding the
computer with photos of convicted local criminals at large: that is,
people convicted of serious crimes who have either served time in prison
and been released, or who were not jailed. Once programmed, so the theory
goes, the computer becomes the perfect watchman. Dozens of CCTV cameras
become its eyes. The eyes never blink. The computer never sleeps, nor does
it get bored, nor does it miss the dodgy individual loitering near the ATM
because it is ogling the girls at the bus stop. If the police are looking
for someone, the camera will find them.

The police are not looking for me at the moment, but several weeks ago I
voluntarily yielded a digital version of my face to a man from Newham
council, who took it and fed it into the computer. I wanted to find out
whether the borough's electronic watchers would be able to recognise
someone and raise the alarm if they slipped into the detection zone
unannounced. The answer spoke of a Blairite Britain less like George
Orwell's 1984 than the world painted by Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, where
secrecy, the commercialisation of public life and technologically advanced
state surveillance are tempered by incompetence and machines that don't

Newham, a solidly Labour borough, is east East End, terrace after terrace
of small brick houses interspersed with scruffy little shops, chain
stores, pubs, preaching halls and mosques, a place whose inhabitants'
collective memories reach back into every cranny of the history of the
world's non-powerful people, in poor London, in Bangladesh, in Somalia, in
Kosovo, in Afghanistan. Although it happens to contain London City airport
within its boundaries, Newham didn't figure in the calculations of the
world's powerful, until it got involved with Visionics. The US firm makes
the face recognition software, FaceIt, installed by Newham.

Visionics has trumpeted the alleged role of its software in reducing the
borough's crime rate since 1998. After September 11, when Visionics' stock
soared on Wall Street, the company made this little known London borough
famous throughout America as the bold municipality which had dared to
grasp the future of crimefighting technology, and won. Newham was Gotham
City, Visionics was Batman, and though they never said it, the subtext was
clear: let Osama Bin Laden dare to shop for yams in Stratford shopping
mall, and - if MI5 had had the foresight to slip his image into Newham's
database - he would be nabbed.

To get my picture taken I travelled to the council's Folkestone Road
depot, where, behind multiple sets of security doors, shifts of operators
spend their days and nights watching banks of screens showing what must be
one of the least interesting works of reality TV ever devised, the
unedited, real-time, street life of Newham. Despite the apparent dullness
of their job, there is an air of bustle and commitment among the uniformed
staff, much banter and tea, reinforcing the sense that, given a uniform, a
computer and access to a kettle, there is nothing a British guard won't

Newham was a convert to the virtues of CCTV even before Visionics came
along. When the two went into partnership Newham already had more than 140
street cameras and 11 mobile camera units. "I'm not that uneasy about
surveying people on cameras because the world is full of cameras and
public opinion in Newham says over 90% want more cameras, not less. This
is east London and their attitude is, if you're doing nothing wrong,
you've got nothing to worry about," said John Page, Newham's head of
emergency services and community safety.

John Tisshaw, who carries the title of senior enforcement officer, said:
"Since 1996 there's been a big call for more CCTV, not less. It reduces
fear of crime, makes people's life seem very much better. As a result,
everybody wants cameras, apart from those few people who want to cause
criminal offences."

I wasn't the first to try to take the facial recognition challenge. John
Cleese had been, wearing a dress. So had a reporter from the US network
CBS. "We got him every time except once where he was wearing a false beard
and glasses," said Tisshaw. "But he said that everybody was looking at him
at that point."

Already at Folkestone Road there were signs that FaceIt was not all it was
cracked up to be. Page and Tisshaw were strangely reluctant to say how
many times the police had reacted to a Visionics alarm. Indeed, Tisshaw
hinted that the true value of FaceIt was in deterrence, regardless of
whether it worked or not, like a fake burglar alarm on the outside of a
house. "The reason we don't publish these figures is because it's just
contrary to the way we run this scheme. What we're saying to criminals is:
this is the system we've got, and we don't want you doing your wrongdoing,
because we know you're around."

After Newham put my picture on their villains' database - a single face-on
shot taken with a regular digital camera - we agreed that I would test the
system by visiting one or more of the zones covered by FaceIt. I wouldn't
tell them when I was coming, but it would be within an agreed seven-day
period. That period took a long time to arrange. So long that, while I was
waiting, I happened to visit the borough for an unrelated reason. I was
wearing an off-white linen suit. I think I was the only one in Newham
wearing an off-white linen suit that day. From the point of view of the
security cameras, I might as well have been wearing a sandwich board with
the words "Villain - sample only" on it. But the software was being
tinkered with that day, so the computer had no chance.

In early May, I got the call from Newham: they were ready. I picked Friday
afternoon for my raid. I thought about false facial hair. I thought about
cotton wool in my cheeks and dark glasses, and wigs. In the end I didn't
try to disguise myself but I did wear a baseball cap, which I hadn't had
on when the picture was taken. At first acquaintance it might seem that
Visionics has solved a problem common to all camera-based surveillance
systems, the Big Brother problem: if Big Brother is watching you, who is
watching everybody else?

Suppose a security organisation wants to track, in real time, the
movements of 100 people as they pass through a city. Suppose it has camera
coverage of the entire area. To be certain of keeping its human targets in
view at all times, it needs one watcher per camera. The watchers need
screen breaks. There needs to be at least two shifts. That means several
times more watchers than targets, hundreds of watchers, even without
anyone to manage the system, let alone go out and pick up suspects.

Visionics claims its system can get round this by automatically
recognising people's faces, distinguishing suspects under surveillance
from other people, even on a crowded street. Here is how it is supposed to
work: when the computer receives the two-dimensional camera image, it
sorts the faces from the rest of the background clutter and, for each
face, picks out a series of "nodal points" and measures the distance
between them. Visionics has worked out 80 nodal points - "the peaks and
valleys of the bone structure of the face", as a company spokesman put it.
They lie along the edge of the eye socket, the jawline, the nose, anywhere
that marks a clear boundary between light and shade. The distances between
points are converted to a string of numbers which are then compared
against the set of suspects' face numbers in the database. If there is an
80% chance of the match being right, the computer alerts an operator in
the CCTV control room and displays the two facial images on screen for a
human check. If the operator confirms that a suspect has been spotted, he
contacts the police, who decide whether or not to take action. As few as
14 nodal points are enough for a good match.

If you are one of those responsible for catching criminals, or indeed
monitoring political dissenters, this might sound good. But there are
problems. What if targets disguise themselves more expertly than John
Cleese or the CBS guy? Where do you get the pictures on your criminal
database from in the first place? Convicted criminals? But if they are
convicted, why are they walking the streets? If they are harmless enough
to be bailed, or have served their time, why are computers spying on them?
And what are the police supposed to do when they get the call that there
is a known ex-con walking through the shopping centre? Send a response
team? Walking through a shopping centre is not a crime, even for former

It turns out that there is an even deeper problem with the Visionics
software in what the company calls "ambient surveillance" situations. It
doesn't work. There is certainly no proof that it ever has in Britain. I
learned that from someone who should know, Detective Inspector Ian
Chiverton, the police officer responsible for liaising with Newham council
on the Visionics package. I called on him before I set off for the FaceIt
hot zones.

'There have never been more than 20 or 25 faces on the system," he said.
"They've been weeded on a monthly basis. We've chosen what we call our
nominal criminals, so they would be convicted burglars and robbers, but
only one facial shot [of each] was ever put on. And there has never been a
recognition of that facial shot."

That is right, never. Not once, as far as the police know, has Newham's
automatic facial recognition system spotted a live target. It is not
surprising. DI Chiverton explained that for the system to work properly,
it needs pictures taken of suspects from at least five different angles
and the Metropolitan Police doesn't take that many. "To be recognised you
would have to walk around Newham like this, wouldn't you," he said. He got
up from his desk and stomped around the room, holding his face in a
grinning rictus at a 45 degree angle to the ground. "It's not recognising
your face - it's a computer, isn't it? It recognises digital imagery - how
many times are you going to walk around Newham like that?"

Chiverton wasn't saying the system might not work one day, just that
neither it, nor the police resources to make use of it, were ready. He
could see it being useful for tracking people on the sex offenders
register, or to hunt for missing persons. "If it catches one murder
suspect that would be worth it," he said. But with Newham police 80 to 90
officers down on full strength, and anxious not to become embroiled in new
human rights or civil liberties battles, there was little they could do
with the system as it stood, even if it worked.

"Say you're Bill the burglar and I was just to get your face on the system
and a little bell rings at Folkestone Road - what would I do with it? I
haven't got the resources to follow you around Newham. So what is the
purpose of putting 300 Bill Burglars on there? It's different if you're
wanted for murder or you're a paedophile. But then you have to make sure
you have the management systems in place."

I left DI Chiverton and set off into deep Newham to test the cameras.
There are few zones in the borough where the cameras are linked to FaceIt,
and I promised council officials that I wouldn't reveal where they were,
but it is not giving much away to say that they are places where there is
a great deal of coming and going. I visited two of them. I hadn't intended
to make it easy for the system. I tried to think like a man who does not
want to be seen, who wants to blend in with the crowd; swift, anonymous,
the assassin, the bomber, the pickpocket. I blew it. As I approached the
hot zones, my heart began to pound and I began to sweat. I had a sense
that I was being tracked. I also had a genuine curiosity to see the
cameras, so I began looking up, like a tourist in Manhattan, then
remembered that if I could see the cameras they would see me, so I looked
down at the ground. At this point I was almost run down by a family in a
mini-van. I was about to leave the area, then remembered I had meant to
get a timed and dated receipt to prove I had been there, so doubled back,
then back again; then I couldn't find my travel ticket and spent five
minutes going through 10 pockets with my face to a wall. I was relieved
that no human passer-by, let alone a computer, had called the police
because of this dodgy behaviour.

I needn't have worried. FaceIt didn't spot me, in that zone or in the
second one, where there had been just as much palaver, and I took off my
hat. The computer never knew I had been there. Sandra, the always cheerful
Newham press officer, didn't sound surprised when she reported the failure
of the Visionics system, and by this time, neither was I.

The vaunted clear-cut success of FaceIt in reducing crime in Newham more
than in neighbouring boroughs doesn't stand up to close analysis. True,
between 1999 and 2002, crimes of violence in Newham went up by 4%,
compared to 19% in the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets, and the fall
in criminal damage in Newham - 8% - was greater than the 1% fall in Tower
Hamlets. But theft increased by about the same - 11%in the latter, against
10% in Newham. Most remarkably, whereas robberies in Tower Hamlets went up
by 33%, in Newham they increased by a still more alarming 38%; and while
in Tower Hamlets burglaries fell over the period by 12%, in Newham, they
went up slightly.

Another blow to Visionics' credibility in street surveillance came from
the US, where, using open government legislation unavailable in the UK,
the American Civil Liberties Union forced police in Tampa, Florida, to
make available daily logs of the FaceIt system they installed last year.
The logs showed that on four days in July, the system had sounded the
alarm 14 times. This sounds better than Newham. It wasn't. Every one of
those 14 turned out to be a false match - an innocent member of the
public, unwittingly thrown up for scrutiny by a security service.

The man who knows most about Newham's love affair with facial recognition
technology is Bob Lack, Tisshaw's predecessor, who oversaw the system's
introduction and was present when Home Office officials carried out an
assessment. Unfortunately, several months ago, something happened to Bob
Lack which means that it would be easier to talk to him if he was living
in a shed on the outskirts of Ulan Bator. He was given a job at the Home
Office. Lack told me that he couldn't speak to me without permission from
the government press office, and the government press office told me: "We
don't facilitate interviews with officials."

Clive Reedman of the Police Information Technology Organisation seemed
more helpful. This was an illusion. "I can't give you figures on the
numbers of times the alarm sounds [in Newham]," he said. "Even if the
alarm does sound it doesn't necessarily mean the police are going to take
any action because it's an operational decision. It is an extremely
difficult thing to evaluate from the technical point of view. The best you
can say is that it's a successful system, the main reason probably being

How did he know it was successful? "The system has been evaluated. What I
can't give you is any results, because that is between us and the Home
Office. What I can say is, you have to remember a face-in-the-crowd system
is extremely difficult to evaluate anyway.'

But surely the public had a right to know whether the system worked or
not? No, said Reedman. "The figures, if released, would never be viewed in
the right way. It is very, very difficult to define a standard trial for a
face to face system. So there is an awful lot of subjectivity, open to all
kinds of interpretation. All we can say is, the Home Office is happy in
the investment in the [Newham] CCTV system because it has had the purpose
of reducing crime and removing the fear of crime.'

Certainly the Home Office does seem to be happy. Extraordinarily happy, as
it turned out when I finally called Visionics. So far, only two councils
in the UK have gone public with their use of FaceIt - Newham and
Birmingham. According to a Visionics spokeswoman, Frances Zelazny,
however, four other local authorities in Britain are running trials of the
system. She just couldn't say which ones because they weren't ready to go

I asked about a press release Visionics put out on January 10, saying that
"the FaceIt surveillance system, running in a UK town centre, successfully
identified a subject wanted by law enforcement authorities". Could she say
where this happened and what kind of suspect was involved? She couldn't. I
asked about DI Chiverton's denial that the system had ever spotted a
suspect. Zelzany rejected this. 'There was a Home Office official in the
Newham control room during August 2001, to evaluate the system, and they
found that of about half a million faces, 93 were referred to the police
as matches. It wasn't up to Bob Lack whether the police took it

But if the Home Office wouldn't release the results of the evaluation, and
Lack wasn't allowed to talk, and the police said there had never been a
good match, didn't that suggest the system didn't work for street

"People who use technology in these areas understand that it's a tool that
helps them, not the be all and end all," said Zelzany. "[FaceIt] is doing
something it's virtually impossible for humans to do. There's no way a
human can sit in front of 500 screens and remember hundreds of faces and
match them all."

There are about 2.5 million CCTV cameras in Britain, 10% of the worldwide
total. An unknown number of them, in unknown places, are being hooked up
to a computerised facial recognition system which, on the available
evidence, doesn't work. This might seem absurd, rather than sinister,
where it not for the fact that the process is being carried on either in
secrecy or, as in Newham, behind a blare of publicity which conceals the
lack of real information about how well the system works. You have been
warned. But you haven't been told. Smile! 

Guardian Unlimited  Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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