Interpol wants facial recognition database to catch suspects

Interpol is planning to expand its role into the mass screening of passengers moving around the world by creating a face recognition database to catch wanted suspects.

Every year more than 800 million international travellers fail to undergo "the most basic scrutiny" to check whether their identity documents have been stolen, the global policing cooperation body has warned.

Senior figures want a system that lets immigration officials capture digital images of passengers and immediately cross-check them against a database of pictures of terror suspects, international criminals and fugitives.

The UK's first automated face recognition gates - matching passengers to their digital image in the latest generation of passports - began operating at Manchester airport in August.

Mark Branchflower, head of Interpol's fingerprint unit, will this week unveil proposals in London for the creation of biometric identification systems that could be linked to such immigration checks.

The civil liberties group No2ID, which campaigns against identity cards, expressed alarm at the plans.

"This is a move away from seeking specific persons to GCHQ-style bulk interception of information," warned spokesman Michael Parker.

"There's already a fair amount of information collected in terms of passenger records. This is the next step. Law enforcement agencies want the most efficient systems but there has to be a balance between security and privacy." The growth of international criminal gangs and the spread of terrorist threats has increased demand for Interpol's services.

Last year it carried out 10,000 fingerprint searches; this year the figure will reach 20,000.

An automated fingerprint identification system with far greater capacity, known as Metamorpho, will be installed next year. Earlier this month Interpol launched its "global security initiative" aimed at raising $1bn (577m) to strengthen its law enforcement programmes. It claims to hold the "names and identifiers" of 9,000 terrorist suspects.

Branchflower will speak at the opening of the Biometrics 2008 conference in Westminster about the possibility of extending its biometric database.

Before the conference he said that Interpol wanted to create a face recognition database, to match its fingerprint and DNA records, that could be searched and matched automatically.

"Facial recognition is a step we could go to quite quickly," said Branchflower, "and it's increasingly of use to [all] countries. There's so much data we have but they are in records we can't search."

If Interpol had been operating a face recognition database linked to national border controls last autumn, he said, it might have picked up a Canadian teacher wanted for child abuse as he entered Thailand. The paedophile was the subject of a high-profile manhunt.

"We could have picked him up the moment he entered Bangkok rather than having to wait another two weeks," said Branchflower."We need to get our data to the border entry points. There will be such a large role in the future for fingerprints and facial recognition." (10.20.2008, Owen Bowcott )

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