According to an investigative report from news site RNZ, police in New Zealand have invested $9 million in a biometric facial recognition solution provided by Japanese tech giant NEC that can identify individuals from live images extracted from CCTV camera feeds.
According to parliamentary annual reviews, the Automated Biometric Information System (ABIS) has been in the works since 2014, and will be run by the US-based non-police contractor Dataworks Plus when it is expected to go live later this year.
Using NEC’s NeoFace solution, ABIS has been collecting 15,000 facial images a year, with that number expected to increase by as much as a factor of 10. The 2018 tender that awarded Dataworks the contract stated that “[i]t is mandatory that the system provides an interface to import digital images from media sources.” An RNZ request for police to explain what media sources it is referring to went unanswered.
Though the tender also stated that NeoFace would be used to scan passport and driver’s license photos, police officials have stated that any change to what the system can do (meaning scanning live video feeds as opposed to still photos) would require executive approval before implementation by the force.
In what appears to be one of many contradictions, police have also stated that the new system would not be designed to run against a continuous live CCTV feed.
In a 2019 response to an Official Information Act (OIA) hearing, a police spokesperson stated that “[t]he new facial recognition system that police is introducing is designed to only search still images of suspects against the police database.”
However the tender issued notes that “[i]t is mandatory that searching can be conducted dynamically in real time using multiple fields.”
The police agency has said it is establishing ABIS under its Serious and Organised Crime division, with the aim of cutting crime and reducing investigation time by identifying suspects faster.
NeoFace “enables Police to compare still images of unidentified suspects, where those images have been submitted as part of an investigation,” read a police statement, adding, “Facial comparisons are confirmed by qualified forensic practitioners.”
The use of facial recognition software by law enforcement agencies has become a highly publicized and controversial topic in recent years, thanks in part to American startup Clearview AI and its secretive deals with police agencies and private corporations around the world.
It is perhaps notable that the police department is not among the 21 government agencies in New Zealand that have signed the country’s charter to guide algorithm use.
August 31, 2020 – by Tony Bitzionis