Police in Austria use facial recognition for demonstrations

The comparison of police photographs in Austria and Germany was provided by the Cognitech company from Dresden. In both countries the technology was used in investigations after political assemblies. In future, the EU wants to make facial image searches possible in all member states.

The Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in Austria also uses its new facial recognition software for investigations into political assemblies. This was reported by „Der Standard“ with reference to unspecified documents. According to the magazine, the police use the application to analyse photographs of demonstrations that took place in the Favoriten district of Vienna in summer. At that time, Turkish right-wing extremists had attacked and injured first feminist and then Kurdish and anti-fascist activists. In the course of the several days of fighting, a leftist center was also attacked.

According to the information of the „Standard“, which could be investigation files, facial recognition was used to identify the antifascists involved. In the procedure 47 known persons were identified. The magazine did not find out whether the photos of right-wing extremists were also examined with the technology.

Austria’s BKA tests further applications

The investigation of the antifascists is one of the first regular use of facial recognition, which, according to the answer to a parliamentary question, began on August 1. According to Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, the software is now integrated into the IT environment of the Ministry. The technology was provided by the Dresden-based company Cognitec Systems, the Ministry of the Interior paid 448,813.20 euros for it.

Since the end of last year, investigators have conducted a total of 581 searches using the system from Cognitech. In the process, photographs of unknown perpetrators were compared with photographs from the identification of previous criminals. How many photos and persons are stored in this reference database remains open. In 83 cases the software is said to have identified previously unknown persons.

After each search run, the investigators are shown 30 images that have a defined „probability of matching“. This threshold value is based on Cognitech’s algorithms, which according to the Ministry of the Interior „as with all such systems“ are the manufacturer’s secret.

Glasses and scarves influence the results

In the test operation, the Austrian BKA had found no difference in the results with regard to gender. Different detection rates depending on the skin color of the affected persons were apparently not tested. However, poorer exposure conditions could lead to a worse result. Headgear, goggles, scarves and „any angle of inclination or rotation of the head“ also influence the success of an alignment.

With regard to lighting conditions or image distortion, however, the photographs can accordingly be „optimized with different programs“. For this purpose, new computers and high-resolution screens are purchased at the BKA. Next year, the state criminal investigation offices are also to be connected to the system. In spite of the successful acquisition, further „programs or tools“ are being tested with interfaces to existing databases in Austria’s BKA.

54,000 queries in Germany

The German Federal Criminal Police Office also uses a Cognitech system for its facial recognition. It’s database, which is part of the nationwide INPOL file, contains about five million searchable photos. The number of searches increases significantly every year; last year German police forces carried out around 54,000 searches. The success rate is also rising. After the G20 summit in Hamburg, the police there also used the face recognition system at the BKA, but only three unknown suspects were identified.

The Hamburg data protection commissioner had wanted to prohibit the police from further use of the system, but the administrative court finally overturned an order to that effect.

In the future, the EU Commission wants to make facial image searches possible throughout Europe. To this end, the Prüm framework is to be used, in which DNA sequences or fingerprints have so far been searched. In May the EU Commission presented a feasibility study made by the consulting firm Deloitte, which will be discussed next week in the EU Parliament. The study also proposes criteria for the inclusion of police photographs in order to increase the success rate of face recognition.

Image: The Ernst Kirchweger House in Vienna attacked by right-wing extremists (Public Domain).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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