Police Technology: AI, Facial Recognition and DNA Scanning

Jessica Kimbell, GovNet
Oct 24, 2023

With the National Digital Policing Strategy 2020-2030 now in full swing and the pandemic accelerating the uptake of many digital policing and police technology projects, we caught up with Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave QPM, Front Line Policing HQ & NPCC National Lead Criminal Justice - Metropolitan Police Service to discuss how technology, both current and future, could help modernise the UK’s police force.

Think AI, Facial Recognition, and instantaneous DNA scanning!

Developing Existing Police Technology

There are many examples of technology that can benefit the police – some that already exist, which just need building on, and some that haven’t yet been created.

To illustrate an existing area of police technology that needs further development, AC Ephgrave used the example of disclosure and the increasing volumes of data that need to be managed and manipulated as a result:

“Disclosure is a small element of what most officers have to do, but it’s a very important one; and with changes to the Directors Guidance from the CPS - DG6 as it is now is – we need to do much more work earlier on around disclosure in a case. This brings challenges around managing digital data. We need to continue develop, and we need companies to continue to develop, software that enables us to extract and manipulate data in a swift and efficient and bespoke way.”

Being Creative with New Police Technology: Live Facial Recognition

On the other side of the coin is innovation – looking at technologies that we’ve only scraped the surface of so far, but which could lead to great time saving and efficiency breakthroughs.

AC Ephgrave discussed two areas in particular: Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition to help prevent, detect and reduce crime; and offender management:

“One obvious AI opportunity to discuss is Live Facial Recognition (LFR), which we trialled in the Met about a year ago. This enables us to be much more effective when you’re trying to find somebody; and it doesn’t just have to be about criminality – it could be used for a missing persons case, or a vulnerable child, or a missing witness, for example.

AI is a technology that is really exciting, even just from this one example of its use. But it’s also one that’s very controversial - there were all sorts of arguments at the time from pressure groups when we introduced it. The point I tried to make when talking to the Press though, is that it’s technology doing a job that police already do; we just happen to be using technology to do it because it’s quicker, more efficient, and also better at doing the job. The activity itself isn’t any different.”

Retrospective Facial Recognition

“The other AI opportunity to talk about is Retrospective Facial Recognition: so where you have a face of an unknown suspect, perhaps from a CCTV image, and you retrospectively take that image and search it against images from all over the world… and it would tell you who that person might be. And it’s also a great opportunity to further develop your intelligence – you may end up with that person being arrested, or you may not, but you’d have more intelligence than before.

So there are some very exciting developments around artificial intelligence, even just around facial recognition, that we could look at. But I’m sure there are many, many others!”

Offender Management Technology

“Offender Management is another fantastic example [of technological improvements] – the idea of tagging isn’t new, but what could new technology deliver in terms of tagging to make it more efficient, more effective, less onerous on the person that has got the tag? For example making the tag more discreet, so it’s less embarrassing; or geofencing areas so that if an offender goes into a certain area we get alerted… You could use that either for a prolific burglar who is banned from going to a certain part of town, or you could use it for a domestic abuse offender who is not supposed to go within 500 yards of the victim. There are endless opportunities to use it to prevent crime, or to detect crime. So that’s where the excitement lies.”

Privacy and New Technologies

Of course, with new advancements in police technology also come challenges. AC Ephgrave touched upon the impact on areas such as privacy and civil liberties, and the push-back they often receive:

“There’s nothing wrong with that”, he said. ”Those challenges need to be made, and we as a society need to decide where we are on it all; not just for policing. Ultimately, we are policed by consent in this country, and we are very cognisant of that - so if the public are unwilling to tolerate a particular tactic then there’s no point in us pursuing it. I think most people would recognise the benefits… and weigh them up against the potential disadvantages; but that’s not for me to decide!”

Looking to the future

Twenty years ago we could never have imagined how easy and readily available much of the tech we now have at our fingertips would be. We asked AC Ephgrave what he thinks police technology will look like twenty years from now:

“That’s a very good question! I think the demographic of London will look very different in terms of residents vs. commuters. I think people, including the police, will find even better ways of working remotely - so at the moment it’s about Teams calls and meetings, but I think if we can really enable a free-flow of data and access to information in a secure way outside of buildings I think that will free up our officers even more.”

“I also think technology like instantaneous identification through DNA or fingerprints on the street will transform the need for arrest, for example. So we could stop someone that looks like a wanted suspect, ask them to put their finger on a device, and within 30 seconds I would know whether to arrest them or let them go on. We are nearly there with fingerprints, but from a DNA perspective it would just take a minute to trace from your dead skin cells on your finger and could give a DNA result in 30 seconds. Stuff like that! I think that’s the world we are going to be in.”

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