We're Watching (Out For) You

One London, England borough is fighting crime — and winning, thanks in part to facial recognition software.

Have you ever felt like someone was watching you? If you live in Newham, just outside of London, England, you may be right.

In an effort to help keep crime at a minimum in this East London borough, the borough uses Face It Surveillance software from Visionics Corp. (Jersey City, NJ) in conjunction with other control room hardware and software. The system automatically scans the faces of people passing more than 200 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras placed throughout Newham. These cameras can be found in several public areas — on top of towers, clipped to the sides of buildings, in subways, or even in parks with crime problems.

The system's specific objective is to reduce crime in Newham by searching for matches in a watch list of known criminals, stored in a police database within the control room. When the system spots one of those faces, a security officer in the control room is alerted, a manual verification is made, and the police are contacted. The live video feed is also sent to the police station directly from the control room. It is important to note that the system discards all images that do not match up against the database. This ensures the privacy of the innocent.

The cameras feed back to a central control area, which is monitored 24 hours a day. Cameras can also be monitored concurrently, but not individually. The borough council turned to Visionics' Face It Surveillance to monitor and add functionality to these cameras. Since the system was installed, crime has significantly dropped in Newham. (Statistics are based upon a combination of the CCTV cameras, Face It Surveillance software, and the publicity derived from the installation.)

  • Burglaries dropped by 39%.
  • Vehicle crimes, such as break-ins and theft, dropped by 39%.
  • Criminal damage (vandalism) dropped by 26%.
  • Crimes against the person (muggings, murders) dropped 80%.

"We have a small number of active muggers in and around our shopping centers," says Bob Lack, Newham's security chief. "As the system develops, facial images of known pedophiles may also be added to the automated watch list."

The Biometric Aspect
Tim Pidgeon, manager of business development at Visionics U.K., says that Newham looked at several other facial recognition systems, but chose Face It Surveillance because of the software's algorithm (a software procedure or formula for solving a problem). Face It Surveillance works with an algorithm called local feature analysis. This algorithm can identify a face by certain characteristics and the relationship between those characteristics. Face It Surveillance looks at the triangle drawn from the base of the nose to the outside corner of both eyes — taking no consideration of glasses, hair, or facial hair. "Other software works off of an algorithm called EigenFaces, which cannot take into consideration changes in lighting and positioning," explains Pidgeon. "Other forms use laser scanning technology to work out a 3-D composite of the face. That's not really publicly acceptable or covert. The beauty of our system is that it is covert, accurate, and therefore highly effective."

The cameras were installed last year as part of a three-year plan to reduce crime. Facial recognition was seen as a way that the police could monitor the cameras. "Technology solutions were required to assist people, not replace people," Pidgeon points out.

According to Pidgeon, the system was easy to install. "There was hardly any end user training," he says. "It is a totally passive system. It doesn't replace officers. There will always be two or three human decisions in the chain when a match is made."

Safety Is The Value
Unfortunately, tragedy spurs the need for this type of surveillance. "Terroristic attacks like recent bombings in London create the need for these systems," says Pidgeon. "Those tragedies bring attention to what can be done to avoid future attacks or solve crimes. A high-profile U.K. news star was recently killed in this area. Footage from these cameras is being used to help find the killer."

The biggest value provided by the CCTV cameras and Face It Surveillance software can't be measured monetarily. "How do you put a price on the fact that six elderly women didn't get attacked last week?" asks Pidgeon. "A mugging could have a horrific effect on the rest of an elderly person's life."

Future Plans
According to Pidgeon, cameras are now being installed in bus lanes on Newham streets on a trial basis. "The software works on relatively the same principal," he explains. "We have traffic lanes that are only used for busses and taxis. Drivers often use them illegally. With automatic license plate recognition, citations can be written even if an officer was not present to see the violation. It's technology at its best — using computers to search tirelessly."

Visionics is now ready to take the borough to the next generation of software, allowing system operators to concurrently look at multiple heads in a field of view. "The search will run on every head," Pidgeon explains. "The software will also allow for more concurrent camera monitoring and larger watch lists."

Visionics plans to offer its Face It Surveillance program through resellers. "Surveillance is an area that will become increasingly important to VARs, systems integrators, and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)," says Pidgeon.

Nancy Senger