Forces turn to biometric authentication as the final frontier in public safety

Automated facial recognition technology has rarely been out of the headlines.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick recently said facial recognition is very useful within law enforcement and the technology needs to make its way towards public acceptance or Britain risks being “left behind.”

Police forces across the country are facing increasing cost pressures, with direct government funding falling 30 per cent in the last eight years.

As a result, biometrics is rapidly making its way into government policy as a critical tool to improving the quality and efficiency of policing whilst reducing costs. As part of a diverse Digital Authentication strategy, automated facial recognition surveillance is becoming an integral part of our digital policing, with the UK Home Office planning to invest £97 million into a broader biometric technology approach to safeguard our streets.

However, the latest court case against South Wales Police as well as the recent Amazon backlash over the sale of its technology to forces across the Atlantic, has highlighted that public acceptance of the use of biometric technology is as important as the maturity of the technology in order for the police to achieve the expected benefits.

There is clearly a need to focus on how biometrics as a whole, as technology matures, can support identity verification at scale and to gain widespread public acceptance as part of a wider digital policing initiative.

Digital fingerprint based authentication, which is still widely regarded as having a higher level of maturity, has an implicit acceptance linked to the identity of the individual and delivers a lower false positive result. Facial recognition, when used as a stand-alone biometric, suffers from the risk of challenge or refusal to accept as in the case of the challenge to the South Wales Police pilot program. In addition, gender and racial bias as well as scenarios such as poor lighting and individuals wearing accessories impacts on reliability.

Public perception of the maturity of biometrics such as Automated Facial Recognition and their effective usage has strong links back to existing physical processes and consumerisation. Fingerprint technology has high levels of consumer adoption due to use on mobile devices, and use cases such as airports using flatbed scanners, which is also widely understood and helps immensely with acceptance.

Police forces around the world are looking to integrate the latest advancements in technology to enhance public security and cut costs, and biometric solutions are integral to this movement. With the maturing of biometrics techniques and many different scenarios to address, it’s imperative to use the right biometrics for the right requirements and to create a strategy that facilitates the use of multiple biometrics. In many regards, it is about adopting the right biometric approach for the right police use case, taking into account the varying of levels of technology maturity and public acceptance and confidence.

There are current barriers to the acceptance of biometrics which will be overcome as trust in the technology becomes the norm. Fingerprint, being the most mature and widely used has high levels of acceptance today and is easily adopted by police and public, but does not quite work for wider surveillance techniques.

Forces are finding it beneficial to adopt a digital fingerprint capture mechanism rather than physical. Facial recognition would be a surveillance at scale solution but the challenges of maturity and external factors as well as public acceptance are challenges to be overcome in the future.

It is imperative for police forces to take a strategic approach as they trial biometric technologies, and not solely focus on a single biometric approach.

With the rapid rate of innovation in the field, an open biometric strategy that delivers the ability for the police to use the right biometric techniques for the right requirements will accelerate the benefits associated with digital policing and achieve public acceptance by linking the strategy to ease of adoption.

Acceptance and therefore consent is key to the success of a biometric approach to the many digital police use cases. Migrating existing physical processes to digital to create efficiency and improved accuracy whilst both technology and public acceptance matures will be critical to success for Digital Policing strategies.

This column originally appeared in Police Oracle.

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