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Shop-a-suspect web security system: 'We've helped cops nab 100 suspects'

Data-spaffing Facewatch scheme hopes for wider rollout

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Earlier this year, The Register revealed how a massive security breach accidentally allowed access to thousands of images of people suspected of petty crimes. Now the private company behind that CCTV and image database is claiming its technology has led to the arrest of 100 suspects.

London's Metropolitan Police has spent the past 12 months working with Facewatch, a website where business owners can communicate with each other and the police to share information about potential suspects.

The website streamlines the process of handing CCTV footage, snapshots, incident forms and other evidence to cops. The system's makers say the force had already made 100 arrests using Facewatch and expects many more as businesses around the capital begin to use it. They had no numbers on the number of convictions that arose from those arrests.

Some 7,500 businesses and a further eight police forces across the UK are also using Facewatch, which the company hopes will become a key part of the British police's armoury of crime-fighting tools. About 800 museums are also using the system, including London's V&A and the Ashmolean in Oxford, according to the firm.

El Reg was invited to have a look at the latest build of Facewatch at the firm's headquarters near Embankment station in London.

Facewatch allows businesses to quickly upload footage or snapshots of suspicious individuals to the website. Customers can also use a neat process similar to Apple's screenshot command to zoom in and cut out a frame of footage on screen and then upload it.

This removes two of the current snags which prevent police making the best use of any CCTV footage: the need to physically collect footage from a business and needing the correct codecs to actually view the footage once bobbies have brought it back into the station.

Each piece of "intelligence" – the term Facewatch uses for its uploads – is tagged and indexed. This allows it to be shared with local businesses, allowing them to quickly identify potential criminals and collate evidence which could lead to a conviction. When a crime is reported, the business is emailed at each stage of the police investigation, allowing it to keep an eye on how the case is proceeding.

According to Facewatch, this results in a detection rate of about 15 per cent, higher than the 5 per cent rate of most crimes. It only focuses on low-level crime, such as theft or antisocial behaviour, and is not designed to tackle serious crimes such as murder, rape or drug offences.

Simon Gordon, the system's founder, said he was inspired to begin developing the system after becoming frustrated at the number of bag thefts at Gordon's Wine Bar, which he also owns. The famous London wine bar is a fitting place to run a surveillance system, says Gordon, as it was once known as a meeting place for spies from either side of the Russian curtain.

Gordon said: "The old system of using CCTV footage in criminal investigations was so inefficient. We allow businesses to give intelligence directly to police, but also then get updates on how the investigation is proceeding.

"We want to help the victim of crime by speeding up the investigation. Police don't have to waste time taking reports in person and are freed up to actually catch the criminal."

Facewatch is currently working on facial recognition software, which will soon be tested in a shopping centre in Hampshire.

Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the Met's central forensics image team at New Scotland Yard, said: "Facewatch image submissions to the Metropolitan Police are on the increase and this has led to more prolific thieves being brought to justice. Just this week I have seen five persistent offenders identified thanks to Facewatch.

This is helping to make London safer for businesses and their customers. The more images and footage we get from businesses, the more success we will have in catching criminals caught on camera."

Facewatch is preparing to launch a new app which will allow victims of crime to report the incident themselves. It already offers a “rogues' gallery” app, allowing the public to identify and name suspects.

Previous figures show that CCTV has so far been a spectacularly inefficient way to catch criminals, with one crime in London solved per 1,000 surveillance cameras.

A Metropolitan Police spokeswoman added: "The Metropolitan Police is duty bound to investigate all crime reported by this or any other means. In the fast-moving digital age, it is important the MPS remains open-minded and receptive to innovations in the field of crime prevention. The MPS has worked with Facewatch amongst others to develop innovative ways for the public to engage with us in helping to reduce crime.” ®

Bootnote

The Met was not able to give the Register any details of convictions secured thanks to Facewatch information. The population of London is approximately 7 million people.

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