From grainy CCTV to a positive ID: Recognising the benefits of surveillance

The technologies and methods used by the authorities to monitor us has never been  more advanced, as Rob Hastings found out

Professor Mark Nixon has “had a few fights” with civil liberties groups in his time. As a world-leading expert in developing biometric techniques to identify people using CCTV – every anti-surveillance campaigner’s Big Bother bête noir – he knows all too well what they think of his work.

“They say we’re ruining their privacy,” he says. “I don’t think their personal liberty is in danger.” The techniques he has pioneered “have been used to put murderers away – and I agree with that”.

Through the work of Prof Nixon and Dr John Carter at Southampton University, it is becoming increasingly easy for authorities to monitor us all. Research at the School of Electronics and Computer Science – funded by the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence among others – means technology can spot and identify criminals in surveillance footage with increasing accuracy.

Now Prof Nixon’s department has received extra funding from GCHQ to form part of the national Cyber Security Centre of Excellence, with Southampton specialising in biometrics: ID-ing people using personal traits or physical characteristics.

It’s a controversial area of science which Prof Nixon can claim to have helped father. One of the key aspects is gait analysis: allowing people to be identified by their body shape and the way they walk.

It has helped solve several crimes in Britain and in Sweden helped convict the killer of foreign minister Anna Lindh in 2003.

The potential of such surveillance systems is enormous. But so too, warn campaigners, are the privacy risks.

Last year the Government’s first Surveillance Commissioner, Andrew Rennison, said there was a worrying lack of regulation over how CCTV is used, and that human rights laws may be broken in the process.

“It is the Big Brother scenario playing out large,” he told The Independent. “It’s the ability to pick out your face in a crowd half a mile away.”

But Prof Nixon rejects this. Privacy concern has a long history. If you read into the history of maps, people didn’t want the cheeky bastards making maps of their land. People are always suspicious of what they don’t know, but most people would say they don’t mind the police knowing if they can eliminate a serious threat. [But] we do need some appropriate legal framework and we haven’t got it. I’ve been trying to convince lawyers to work on it but if there isn’t a case they don’t tend to work on it, which is bizarre.”

The need is likely only to increase. Soon artificial intelligence programming may be able to alert security personnel to suspicious behaviour automatically before the person in their sights has done anything illegal.

“Screens and monitors are actually very hard for a human to keep their attention on,” says Prof Nixon.

“We could use artificial intelligence to alert people to events, using activity monitoring to spot suspicious behaviour. How do you flag suspicious behaviour? There are now databases in our department set up purely to evaluate this sort of thing.”

His research into facial recognition, which turns the measurements of someone’s facial features into a series of numbers to be matched against a database by a computer, has played a large part in making it a viable technique – one that was used in the wake of the 2011 London riots in an attempt to catch looters and those breaking the law in other ways.

And as Prof Nixon says: “Your identity is manifest in many different ways.” Ears, eyes, foot steps – all can be used to identify people. Even your heartbeat can betray who you are, and it can be detected from a distance without requiring contact with the body.

For those wearing masks or scarves over their faces, there are still plenty of ways computers can identify them.  Much of the research has been carried out in the “biometrics tunnel” built in Prof Nixon’s department.

It’s a facility that requires a lot of technical expertise and patience – as Dr Carter tells us: “I’ve spent the last three months tracking down a fault in a cable.”

As I wander down it, eight cameras film my strides from a variety of angles against multicolour backgrounds, allowing electronic silhouettes and a 3D virtual model of my body to be constructed by a computer. The distance between my feet, knees, hips, shoulders and head are measured and the pattern of their motion analysed. Were I suspected of a crime, police would then be able to compare my gait profile to information gathered from CCTV footage of the incident – either eliminating me from their enquiries or encouraging them to delve deeper.

“We helped in a conviction of a bagsnatcher who robbed somebody,” says Prof Nixon. “He’d covered up his face with a motorbike helmet, that withheld his DNA, as there was no spit or breath. He wore gloves, so there were no fingerprints left – everything was covered up. But he still ran. We used images of him and presented images to the judge.”

Some of the work in the new centre will go into online identification. Keystroke analysis, looking at the minute differences in timings and patterns between different computer users’ typing mannerisms, is under development.

And Professor Vladimiro Sassone, the director of Southampton’s cyber security centre, says that use of vocabulary, grammar and choice of words may yet be enough under what he calls “cybermetrics”. “You might have two different identities on a social network but the particular choice of words you picked can reveal that they belong to the same person,” he says.

“It mixes ideas from psychology and computer science and biometrics. I wouldn’t bet on when, but there is a chance this can be done.”

Next on the agenda for Prof Nixon is soft-biometrics, which could see verbal descriptions from witnesses of crimes converted into computer code to scan through CCTV footage and pull out potential suspects.

“We’re bridging the semantic gap,” he says. Prof Nixon is keen to point out that biometrics is not just about surveillance and crime catching, however.

Iris recognition systems have been rolled out in many airports in the UK, and in Japan 40 per cent of the cash tellers have automatic finger vein technology to recognise the users.

“Biometrics makes life convenient,” says Prof Nixon, imagining the  perfect use of biometric identity recognition.

“How about when you get to your front door with your papers under your arm and you look for your keys and you drop your papers in a puddle – wouldn’t it be nice if your door opened and said hello?”

Crimestopper: When it works

John Gibson Rigg, a burglar from Bolton, Lancs,  was given a two-year jail term in 2008 after the swagger from his bowed legs was matched  to CCTV footage using  gait analysis.

Mijailo Mijailovic,  the killer  of popular Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh who was tipped to become prime minister, was identified partly by his walk before he confessed.

Armed robber Liam Gould,  24, was jailed in Preston last year after police used facial recognition software that matched the size and shape of his upper nose  and eye, despite wearing much of his face being obscured by a hood.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

News

Florida mother launched a petition to ban the sale of the dolls

Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Health & Social CareTeacher - Full time and Part time

£90 - £140 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Sixth for...

History Teacher

£95 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Plymouth i...

SQL Developer - Cardiff - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits and bonus: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer -...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?