The face of crime captured digitally

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Millions of photographs of criminals and suspects are likely to be placed on a national computer identification system being develop by the police, in what they hope will be a break-through in crime fighting.

Several police forces have already set up their own "facial mapping" data banks, including South Wales, which has photographs of 150,000 criminals and suspects, and Essex, which has 90,000.

The Home Office and police chiefs are currently working on a national system, which will help match unidentified suspects with photographs of known offenders and provide criminal histories.

This is expected to eventually lead to more advanced automatic "facial recognition" which will identify anyone caught on video or film in seconds. The technology could be used at airports, stations, and football matches to instantly spot known offenders.

Experts predict that within the next five years all police forces will have facial mapping computers. The system could revolutionise crime fighting, but also raises civil liberty issues. Concerns about the growing use of surveillance technology are raised in BBC2's The Sci-Files tonight.

At least seven police forces in England and Wales already either use, or are trialling, forms of photographic identification.

In Essex they have a manual system using a database of about 90,000 photographs of offenders which can be compared with images collected from crime scenes, such as town centre surveillance cameras. Ken Linge, principal photographic officer with Essex police said: "Using video overlays it proves identification similar to finger printing, as it matches up physical features ... eventually in four or five years there will be a national system of facial recognition."

Adrian Clark, a senior lecturer in electronic engineering at Essex university, said they are trying to automate the facial mapping process. "It will locate the important facial features and attempt to match up identification with a data bank of pictures," he said.

The Metropolitan Police is also looking at new developments and are in contact with the American research team that developed the "Star Wars" project.

Dr Richard Green, of the centre of applied research and technology at Scotland Yard, said he thought the Metropolitan Police would have a new mapping system in about four years.

Police forces in West Yorkshire, Essex, Avon and Somerset, the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester police, are working with Forensic Technology Ltd, a Scottish company, to trial a facial recognition system.

Peter Cochrane, head of development at BT, said "it is almost 100 per cent likely" that within five years, there will be a system that could revolutionise CCTV, by offering the ability to put a name to any face picked up randomly on any camera in the land.

Civil liberty campaigners are bound to be worried about the use of a national photographic database and will want guarantees about what information is stored and who has access.