New spy system to `map' suspects

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A REVOLUTIONARY surveillance system that allows the police to automatically identify the faces of wanted criminals and suspects in seconds is to be tested on the streets of Britain for the first time.

The "facial mapping" computer will be used to catch muggers, burglars and shoplifters, but it is expected to be extended to target other cases including wanted killers, terrorists and missing children. The Football Association is also interested in using the technology to help pick out known hooligans at matches.

The system, known as Mandrake, is to be tested by Scotland Yard and Newham borough council in a six-month trial in east London, starting next week.

A computer data base of faces of offenders will be compared with film taken by local authority surveillance cameras in shopping centres, streets and housing estates. The computer automatically "matches" the faces of suspects and triggers an alarm, warning the operator who then contacts the police.

More than 1,000 images can be examined per second. It automatically ignores beards and moustaches so offenders cannot hide under disguises.

Photo-fit images can also be included on the data base but tests show they are less accurate than photographs.

The system was criticised yesterday by the civil rights organisation Liberty, which said it could fall foul of human rights and data protection legislation.

However the developers of Mandrake, the police and local councils, believe the system could revolutionise CCTV and, if it proves successful, is likely to be used nation-wide.

Facial recognition systems are already used in Texas to stop sham marriages and on the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration.

Under the trial, Scotland Yard is providing dozens of photographs of wanted offenders, often taken by surveillance cameras in shops and banks. It will also supply pictures of convicted criminals, mostly for offences such as street robbery, burglary, and repeat shoplifting.

The images will be placed on the computer which measures dozens of key facial characteristics, such as the eye shape and size. The computer then scans all the faces picked out on CCTV and will sound an alarm if it makes a match.

The picture of suspect and the person they supposedly resemble then automatically appear on the CCTV operator's screen along with a secret code number. The police are then sent the pictures and the number via computer.

The product, which has been developed by Software and Systems International in Slough, west of London, can be used to catch criminals on the run or missing persons. More controversially, it can also be used to track suspects who the police believe may commit offences.

In future the police, customs, and immigration officers could use it at ports to identify known terrorists, smugglers and other criminals attempting to enter the country.

A Scotland Yard spokesman said the system had an 80 per cent "hit" rate. On the question of civil liberties, he argued: "If you are innocent you have nothing to worry about." It has been tested at Watford football ground, but the poor quality of the surveillance equipment made it difficult for the computer to make matches.