Think facial recognition is creepy? Soon your heartbeat or the way you walk could reveal your identity

Think facial recognition is creepy? Soon your heartbeat or the way you walk could reveal your identity

Facial recognition technology cameras have been installed by police, and by commercial landlords in areas including King’s Cross. 

How do you spot someone in a crowd? Is it by their clothes? Maybe by the way they style their hair? Or is it, like Mark Nixon, by “the bits they’re prepared to expose”?
Nixon isn’t being lewd here. Rather, he is a specialist in what he terms “identity science” – and what he’s trying to say is that people are really quite recognisable. 
Take just the face, he says: “Did you know you could recognise people from their nose? And that ears show your gender? 
“Actually,” he enthuses, “I’d say any bit you’re prepared to reveal, you could usually be recognised by.”
Of course, Nixon’s use of the term “recognised” is pretty loose.
To spot someone based on just their nostril would be almost impossible without so-called “recognition” systems – technology which has been trained on vast data-sets to eventually learn pattern recognition and, so, learn to correctly identify a person. 
This may sound futuristic, but already such systems are being rolled out across the UK. Facial recognition technology cameras have been installed by police, and by commercial landlords in areas including King’s Cross. There are even plans to introduce them into airports, to be used at departure gates to allow people to travel through security without passport checks. 
According to privacy group Big Brother Watch, which conducted an investigation into the space, millions of Brits have already had their faces scanned without their knowledge, in what it termed an “epidemic”. 
“The widespread use we’ve found indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency,” the group’s director Silkie Carlo said. “Police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing.”
Soon there may be even more to disturb Carlo. These surveillance nets are likely to become much more advanced in the coming years. 
Facial recognition technology might have attracted the most attention, and may be the most widely used form of the tech now, but it is far from the only surveillance system being developed. 
Since 2016, almost 100 patents have been filed in the UK alone related to “recognition” technology, working on everything from systems to recognise speech, gesture and even “poses”. It is a sign of the growing competition to steal a slice of a market which is forecast to generate more than $15bn (£12bn) in revenue within the next five years. 
For now, though, at least in the UK, much of this research has not yet materialised into fully-fledged companies. 
Sources suggested there were a few in “stealth mode”, a way that companies can work on products without alerting competitors. But, most of the work is still taking place within universities. 
At Manchester, for example, researchers have pooled together data on footsteps, to build a system which can identify a person by the way they walk, based on things such as their stride or length of foot.
And at Queen’s University of Belfast, huge amounts of research has been conducted into visual speech recognition and ways that people can be recognised based on how they speak and what they say. 
Part of that research has been spun out into a company, Liopa, which is now working with the Government on developing “keyword” search tools, to be able to spot dangerous language through CCTV and, potentially, stop a terror attack.
In fact, police have been looking at new ways to identify people for years. Only, up until now, they have often had to rely on less technology-based approaches.  One example of this is gait recognition.
As early as 2000, police started bringing in experts in podiatry to help them solve cases, asking them to painstakingly go through frame after frame of CCTV footage for clues on potential suspects.
Haydn Kelly knows what this process is like – he was the podiatrist drafted in for the first case.
“It was in all the newspapers at the time,” he says proudly.
“The police had approached me to see if gait could be useful in that case. I've treated over 100,000 patients, and what you’re essentially doing in forensic gait analysis if you’re looking at people’s gaits to see what’s similar about people’s gaits and what’s dissimilar.”
For Kelly, it is easy to see how that process could become automated, done not by an expert, but using “gait recognition” systems. He himself is currently working on a project around gait recognition technology and, he shrugs, “it takes the pain away from the expert”. 
So far, there don't appear to be any such systems being sold to police in the UK, but experts say it’s only a matter of time. And once they go on the market, pick-up is expected to surge. 
The UK is already well-equipped to introduce this technology – these systems don’t need any special cameras, but can instead rely on existing CCTV cameras and, according to studies, the UK has as many cameras per person as China, widely seen as the most extreme surveillance state.
“The UK has historically had a large surveillance footprint,” the UK’s surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter nods. “I think naturally the UK may look like an attractive proposition to Far Eastern companies. And culturally here, there has been an acceptance of surveillance that you haven’t necessarily found in other European countries.”
But, still, outside Europe, the pace of progress has been much faster. Already in the US, facial recognition is in place in ports and at airports. In China, authorities are rumoured to have begun testing gait recognition, and putting technology into schools. 
It is this lag in rolling out the technology which, some say, has meant that British companies are falling behind. 
“The UK is a bit weak,” says Nixon. “If you go to an English manufacturer, they want to sell things, so they’ll say it’s fantastic, but the state of the art is really happening in China and America.”
One new technology in this space, which is drawing much attention across the pond but has yet to hit the UK, is heartbeat identification. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Pentagon was working with a business to use lasers to identify unique cardiac signature from up to 200 metres away.
Another team of researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo are working on a similar, radar-based system, which they believe could be used in airports at border security.
“We’re actively looking for partnerships in industry to integrate our technology into real-world products,” says Wenyao Xu, the lead author on the study. His technology, he claims, is better than facial recognition technology. 
“Both the technologies can reach very close accuracy, but with hearts, it’s not easy to spoof or hide your identity. People can wear a mark, or use their hair to hide themselves, but it’s just really hard to hide your heart.”
There remain many who are yet to be convinced that there is a need for systems firing out lasers or radars towards their hearts.
Whereas cameras can be seen by people, these newer forms of “recognition” technology, to them, seem to be designed as covert. There may be some temptation to move quicker to catch up with the US and Asia, but, they say, we should hold off. 
“These kind of things are aimed at non-consensual forms of surveillance,” says Big Brother Watch’s Carlo. “I think it’s terrifying. The worry is that, if the current attitude and approach is maintained of the UK being a free-for-all, a testing bed as it were, then there’s a really massive risk of this kind of thing seeping through society.”
And once it does, she says, “it would be very difficult to step back”. 


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