Interpol launches new facial recognition database

Law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on facial recognition systems. In addition to their use in identifying criminals, these might also be used in future to perform automatic matching against appropriate databases of everyone crossing an external border of the EU. Interpol is also considering searching through images on social networks.

Following a two-year trial period the international police organisation Interpol has launched a new facial recognition system. This system, called MorphoFace Investigate, complements a database currently used by law enforcement agencies for fingerprint storage and crime-solving.

Developed by the French company Safran Identity & Security, it allows a range of image and video formats to be processed. In the first instance, data on persons wanted by Interpol or reported as missing are being used. Photos held in two relevant databases are presently being checked for their quality and, if suitable for facial recognition, will then be entered into the new database.

Need for surveillance of public events

In reply to a minor interpellation the Federal Ministry of the Interior confirms that the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA, Federal Criminal Police Office) plans to use Interpol’s MorphoFace Investigate. “The technical and data protection aspects of German participation are currently under examination”, says the Ministry.

Searches might be possible as part of police checks, with biometric data in identity documents being read and forwarded to Interpol. The developer of MorphoFace Investigate names other applications, including facial identification or linking a crime to a suspect by matching facial images. Photos might also be compared against public media images as a way of tracing wanted or missing persons.

The images targeted are photos and videos on the Internet and in social networks. This was confirmed by a technical expert from Interpol in a presentation describing further areas of crime in which the system might be used. They include trafficking in human beings, maritime piracy, drugs, financial crime or counterfeiting. Interpol also needs, says the expert, to use the system’s automatic process to take stills from video surveillance footage or trace persons present at “critical public events”.

FBI training

A further possibility is that the system could be integrated into border control systems. Crossing a border would automatically trigger a query to Interpol. This could also be done “in real time” using police officers’ mobile devices. The European Union is currently planning a new “entry and exit register” which will also process facial images. At the moment checks at the EU’s external borders only consult the Interpol database for identity documents that have been reported as stolen or lost.

Photo queries to the Interpol database can currently be performed only by a regional office designated by each member country. Access is by the hit/no hit method: if a person is identified by facial recognition, queries for further information can then be submitted.

Interpol has set up a Facial Expert Working Group to implement the new procedure and link in the Organisation’s 190 member countries. Following a number of conferences and work sessions the Group has finalised a Best Practice Guide for the format and quality of facial images transmitted to Interpol. Expertise on this was provided by the USA’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

INTERPOL 2020 initiative

The new facial recognition capability is part of the INTERPOL 2020 initiative, through which the General Secretariat in Lyon, France, seeks to reform the Organisation’s tasks, priorities and structures. Under the watchword of “interoperability”, existing Interpol databases are to be expanded and more member countries linked up to them.

Interpol will, for example, be seeking new sources of funding to ease the burden on the taxpayer and expand the Organisation. The benefits of existing partnerships will be reviewed and new partnerships will replace old ones as appropriate. This applies to private firms too. Interpol also intends to set up more regional bureaus and improve the links between them.

Two years ago, Interpol added to its General Secretariat in Lyon and its Command and Coordination Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a new Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore, which is developing new strategies for combating digital crime and deploys incident response teams (IRTs) to provide special investigative support to member countries.

Knowledge transfer from the BKA

The INTERPOL 2020 initiative was launched in January 2015 by the new Secretary General and former Vice-President of the BKA, Jürgen Stock. Prior to his move to Interpol Stock was responsible for technical development and liaison with industry. One of his tasks was to oversee the facial recognition project trialled in Mainz railway station in 2006. Matching by means of the now outdated 2-D technology was ultimately deemed too prone to error.

A year later the BKA introduced a facial recognition system for the INPOL database, managed centrally in Wiesbaden. Criminal police offices in the Länder are linked to the database, accessing it via a network interface, and the Federal Police also uses the system. The last few years have seen a marked increase in the number of photo queries run against the database. BKA and Federal Police are working through research projects to improve the technology. It is expected that forensic image enhancing software supplied by the firm Advanced German Technology will be used to generate high-resolution stills from video footage. The new 3-D method will trialled at a German railway station soon.

Prüm, Europol and EURODAC

At the same time the European Union too is expanding its biometric capabilities. It has been suggested that the “Prüm Process”, whereby the EU Member States allow each other a modicum of access to their DNA and fingerprint databases, should be extended to facial images. Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, is working on an “image comparison and identification tool” and has sought information from the BKA on the Cognitec system it uses.

Lastly, the EURODAC database, which stores the fingerprints of asylum seekers, is also being upgraded. The new EURODAC Regulation is currently under preparation, and both the Commission and the Council want facial image processing to be included.

Image: All rights reserved German research project “FeGeb”.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.