Police using facial images from surveillance cameras and social media in criminal probes

Japanese police have been using a system to find whether facial images from surveillance cameras and social media can be matched with database images of people who have been arrested in the past, police officials said, a move that could raise concerns about privacy violations.

The facial analysis system has been operated by police across the nation since March to identify criminal suspects more quickly and accurately, the officials said. But critics warn that the system could turn the country into a surveillance society unless it is operated under strict rules.

“We are using the system only for criminal investigations and within the scope of law. We discard facial images that are found to be unrelated to cases,” a senior National Police Agency official said.

The NPA manages and utilizes facial images under rules set by the National Public Safety Commission, as it does with fingerprints and DNA.

About 10 million facial images are currently stored in the agency’s database, including those of suspects referred to prosecutors who have not been arrested, the officials said.

The system only requires police to enter facial data such as security camera footage. It then compares the data with database images before displaying multiple mug shots containing similar features including eyes, nose, mouth, and eyebrows.

The system also provides the name, address and criminal history of those found matching the entered data.

Before the system was introduced, investigators manually compared photos one by one.

“It is natural for the police to adopt advanced technology. If used properly, (the system) will have a considerable effect,” said Nobuo Komiya, a professor of criminology at Rissho University.

Yasuhiko Tajima, a former professor at Sophia University well versed in privacy protection, underscored the need for legislation to limit the use of the system. “We must ensure that the increase in the number of subjects for registration in the database is not limitless.”

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