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A computer image database which police hope will greatly speed the identification of paedophiles and their victims is being launched in the UK this week.

The database, called Childbase, includes 220,000 photos and images of approximately 20,000 children obtained during police investigations into paedophile abuse.

Many of the images in Childbase come from Operation Cathedral, an international investigation of a international paedophile ring, called the Wonderland Club, which led to more than 100 arrests in 1998.

Child protection officers seizing paedophile images are often faced with the problem of identifying victims. They also have to establish if a picture is evidence of fresh abuse or if it is linked to abuse which has already been investigated.

Using Childbase to check whether an image is of a new victim or abuser will help police prioritise their workloads.

With the previous manual system, vice squad officers had to spend many tedious and unpleasant hours poring books of photographs to identify victims of abuse. With Childbase matches can be made in a matter of seconds.

The system maps the facial characteristics of each subject, producing a digital representation of a face. Detectives can then cross-check this sequence against images in the database to find out if a image represents a new victim or abuser.

Canadian firm Imagis, which helped developed Childbase, has refined the system so it can cope with changes to an individual's hairstyle, weight or other aspects of a person's appearance.

Jim Gamble, Assistant Chief Constable of the National Crime Squad (NCS), the lead agency in the scheme, told the BBC that Childbase had already saved children from abuse and that a "string of prosecutions" was being prepared.

Criminologist Professor John Grieve said the very computer technology paedophiles often used in furtherance of their crimes was being turned against them.

The system, which cost the National Crime Squad £500,000 to develop, will be made available to all the individual police forces across the UK. Access to Childbase, or at least information on the system and best practice recommendations, may be extended internationally over time. ®

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