The photographs of millions of people are being put on a national police database for the first time next year to try to stop criminals escaping detection simply by moving around the country.
From March detectives will be able to compare suspects' images with an estimated 16 million mugshots of people taken into police custody, using Facebook-style photo technology that has never before been available to forces on a nationwide system.
However, campaigners raised concerns yesterday about breaches of civil liberties, with the pictures of people not convicted of any offence being held on the system, and police tactics changing to make use of the new photographic resource.
The system is an extension of the police national database (PND), which was established in 2011 following recommendations by a judge, prompted by the failure of intelligence sharing over the 2002 Soham murders.
Mike Barton, the Chief Constable of Durham Police and the lead on intelligence matters for the Association of Chief Police Officers, explained that with many of the 43 police forces in England and Wales using incompatible technology, police could currently compare photographs of suspects only with ones held in their own files. "This is a game changer," he said. "A criminal from Cornwall might get away with it in Newcastle because they don't know about him. We're closing that door."
The PND currently holds information on millions of people who have been convicted, cautioned or arrested, as well as driving licence holders and others not suspected or convicted of crimes. Discussions are continuing about what photographs can be kept on the database, following successful court challenges by people who have argued that their images should not be retained by the authorities.
National police guidelines introduced in 2010 say that information held on an individual "must not be excessive and must be proportionate to the risk they pose to the community". Mr Barton said the Information Commissioner, the European Court of Human Rights and domestic court cases had all thrown up different views. "If we have to change our rules of engagement then we will," he said.
Campaigners maintained that only those who have been convicted, or on a judge's ruling, should have their pictures on the database.
Nick Pickles, the director of Big Brother Watch, said: "For the police to make themselves judge and jury when deciding what information they should be holding is a flagrant abuse of due process and a serious threat to people's civil liberties,"
The technology is not currently good enough to match images retrieved from CCTV cameras with the database. Mr Barton said it would need a clear full-face shot for the computer to produce a list of possible matches.
He said it could be used, for example, if police were trying to identify photos seized during a raid on a passport forgery factory. Police were trying to get "ahead of the curve", he said, and to capitalise on advances in technology.
National approach: The lesson of Soham
The police national database was the key recommendation from the Bichard inquiry following the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in 2002.
After the murders it was found that their killer, Ian Huntley, had come to the attention of Humberside Police over eight separate sexual offences from 1995 to 1999. This information did not emerge during the vetting check on Huntley when he moved to Cambridgeshire and was appointed caretaker at Soham Village College in 2001.