'Big Brother' TV will track thieves for life

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SURVEILLANCE systems based on Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) are being developed which will technologically "brand" criminals for the rest of their lives.

Two security industry software companies are working on programmes intended to make CCTV cameras able to automatically "recognise" certain individuals, such as convicted shoplifters, and alert the system operators.

They will use the new technique of "face-mapping" - reducing the salient points on the face, nose, eyes, ears and lips, to a series of computer numbers. Anyone listed in the database - with their photograph - as a criminal would trigger alarms all over the country whenever they entered a store with surveillance equipment. "Your record will be just as apparent as a bar code across your forehead," one source said.

A few years ago these applications were confined to the military, but the interaction of new digital cameras with fibre-optic links to microcomputers heralds the growth of a social control system of unforeseen power.

"I have spoken to many managers working at the cutting edge of security technology and they estimate we may be only five years from perfecting fully-automated image recognition systems," said Dr Colin Norris, a leading criminologist from the University of Hull who has made a study of security surveillance.

There are no laws controlling the use and operation of CCTV security systems. Civil liberty activists fear that security operators working for shopping centres, football grounds, car parks and supermarkets could create their own databases of known offenders and undesirables.

"Once the new image recognition systems are perfected they can be linked to databases and it will possible for a known shoplifter, for example, not only to be banned from a specific store but from all the stores in that chain throughout the country," Dr Norris said. "If database information is swopped the individual could be excluded from whole shopping centres. He would be effectively branded."

The same process could apply to other categories of street crime, drugs, motoring and public order offence.

According to Dr Norris, this new form of surveillance is likely to increase social divisions. "These new security systems will induce conformity like nothing on earth, especially among those who have a stake in conforming."