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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
scienceBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + ents
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Sport
sport
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

Senior Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Leading Sof...

Chemistry Teacher

£90 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried