Police test facial recognition cameras in Berlin

The German Bar Association presenting facial recognition technology in Berlin on Tuesday. More than 250 people have volunteered as test subjects while the new technology is being trialled.
The German Bar Association presenting facial recognition technology in Berlin on Tuesday. More than 250 people have volunteered as test subjects while the new technology is being trialled.PHOTO: REUTERS

6-month trial will test how well tech identifies terror suspects; potential errors worry critics

BERLIN • German police have deployed the first facial recognition cameras at a main railway station in Berlin, testing new technology that could help track and arrest crime and terrorism suspects.

"We want to test how good the technology really is," police spokesman Jens Schobranski said of the six-month pilot project, part of a promise by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Conservatives to raise funds for police and security, Reuters reported.

Opinion polls in the run-up to a general election next month show many voters are worried about security, partly after attacks by asylum seekers stoked criticisms of Dr Merkel's decision to allow in more than one million migrants.

According to Deutsche Welle (DW), more than 250 people have volunteered as test subjects. They submitted their names and two photos of their faces, which have been saved in a database so cameras can compare them with surveillance footage. This will gauge how well the software can recognise and distinguish them from passers-by at the Sudkreuz station, a main transport hub in the capital.

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For the test phase, three specialised cameras will film a particular entrance and an escalator leading to the station platform, DW reported.

A corresponding computer program will compare surveillance footage from these cameras with the photos stored in the database.

The volunteers are mostly commuters and are supposed to use the monitored areas as they go through the station. They will carry a small transmitter with them so the computers can check when they appear and if the program independently recognises their faces. The technology has not yet been deployed in a real-world environment.

Security experts are critical of the software's high potential for errors, DW said. They estimate a fail rate of one in one million. In a citywide public transit system carrying three million people per day, that would mean three erroneous police responses every day.

Privacy is also a sensitive subject for many Germans who still fret at the mass snooping practices of the Nazi regime and the Stasi secret police in communist East Germany. Mr Schobranski said footage of the passengers visiting the station will be deleted.

Mr Ulrich Schellenberg, president of the German Bar Association, doubted that the new technology will help, Reuters reported. The deadliest Islamist attack in Germany last year was carried out by a migrant who had been monitored by security agents, he said. "Improving security is not about uncovering something new but rather to go after what we know more forcefully," Reuters quoted him as saying.

Failed asylum seeker Anis Amir killed 12 people in Berlin last year by driving a truck into a Christmas market. Security agents who suspected he was planning an attack had stopped monitoring him after they concluded he was not a threat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2017, with the headline 'Police test facial recognition cameras in Berlin'. Print Edition | Subscribe