Moscow facial-recognition CCTV scheme raises privacy concerns

29 Sep 2017

Many are worried about the implications of facial recognition on such a wide scale. Image: Kanyapak Lim/Shutterstock

New facial-recognition technology will apparently help curb crime, but will this be at privacy’s expense?

Bloomberg reported yesterday (28 September) that Moscow is adding facial-recognition capabilities to its 170,000-strong network of CCTV cameras in a bid to aid the identification of criminals.

The technology was designed by Russian start-up NTechLab, and it cross-checks a digital fingerprint of images from the interior ministry’s database of criminals against images captured by CCTV in apartment block entrances.

Huge volumes of data

There are around 20m hours of video stored at any one time, and the sheer volume means CCTV records are only kept for five days. This has been the case since 2012.

Artem Ermolaev, head of the department of information technology in Moscow, said: “We soon found it impossible to process such volumes of data by police officers alone. We needed an artificial intelligence to help find what we are looking for.”

A two-month trial of the technology resulted in the detention of six criminals who had appeared on a federal “wanted list”, said Ermolaev. According to Bloomberg, the technology is quite accurate and has been checked out by the University of Washington and the US commerce department.

NTechLab released an app last year called FindFace, where users took photos of strangers and identified those in the image by matching them on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social media platform, reportedly with an accuracy rate of 70pc.

The app courted some controversy when it was apparently used to track and harass women who had appeared in pornographic films.

State surveillance worries

The facial-recognition CCTV will not be rolled out to every single camera in the Russian city, as this would see already huge implementation costs skyrocket. Currently, it’s being introduced selectively in certain areas.

Naturally, with all facial-recognition and biometric technologies, alarm bells are ringing in terms of privacy, particularly if the CCTV system was to be compromised by a third-party attacker.

Although Ermolaev said the information is stored in a secure, limited-access database, critics are concerned about the potential for intensive state surveillance that this type of system creates.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects