Face-identifying software piques police interest

Adrian Wan

Facial-recognition technology being developed by Hong Kong academics has caught the eye of the city's police chiefs.

The force has expressed interest in a University of Hong Kong study intended to develop software that would identify people whose faces are partially covered or disguised in photographs or videos.

It comes days after the force's announcement that some officers would wear cameras clipped to their uniform lapels to record incidents, a move that has prompted privacy concerns.

Police have not given any details about how they would use the HKU software or placed an order for it, but it could potentially be used to check surveillance footage or images from the body-camera to identify people in a photographic database.

When the software was completed it would 'most likely be used by the police because they are the target audience, and also the Immigration Department,' said Kenneth Wong Kwan-yee, associate professor of computer science, who was leading the study. He added: 'We're not collaborating [with police]. If it works, then they may use it. They have expressed interest, but it's not like we have any commitments that we are going to sell it to them or they have to use it.'

Colleague Dr Dirk Schnieders added: 'We have received support from the police. They said 'Yeah, this is very useful for us'.'

A prototype of the software is due to be ready for the Immigration Department in April.

It could be used to check photographs taken at immigration counters against photographs and sketches in the department's terrorist and suspect database. An alarm would sound if a possible match is found.

By July, when the study is due to end, researchers should have a software prototype ready that would allow law-enforcement officials to check a photograph or sketch of a suspect against surveillance videos.

The study, 'Matching facial composites to partially occluded or disguised faces for law enforcement and crime investigations', received more than HK$1 million in funding from the Innovation and Technology Commission.

Some police officers in Kowloon West and members of the force's tactical unit will begin wearing the British-made body-cameras within the year as part of a three-month trial which could lead to 7,000 of the mini-cameras being bought for officers. Police hope the cameras will cut crime, raise conviction rates and tackle what they described as a growing 'complaint culture' in the city.

There are also hopes that the cameras will keep officers in line by recording their behaviour when dealing with members of the public in heated situations such as protests.

Police Commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung played down fears about the controversial scheme, saying only behaviour that breached the law during protests would be filmed. Those being filmed would know they were being recorded, he said.

'It is beneficial to both [police and protesters]. Facts speak louder than words,' Tsang said last week.