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May 30, 2013

Police Look to Facial Recognition Software to Catch Criminals

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Technology can play a critical role in understanding and investigating the tools in a terror attack, but in the case of the Boston bombings, it also helped track down the attackers.

In the crowd of thousands of onlookers at the finish line of the marathon, investigators were able to identify the two Tsarnaev brothers using security surveillance video. Now, new technology is helping investigators turn those blurry pictures into a sort of facial fingerprint that can be searched in a database of thousands of faces.

“It’s not a definitive science such as fingerprints and DNA,” said Inspector Kenneth Mekeel of the New York Police Department, one of the early adopters of this technology. “But this is good.”

Users of the facial recognition software plot points on a face’s structure to create a 3D model. This model can be rotated to create a front-facing image of the person, which can then be used to compare with a database of faces.

However, sometimes the images are too low resolution to use, so another new piece of technology is helping to enhance the quality of images.

“The problem in the Boston case is that the image was so small that technology cannot handle that low-resolution face,” says Marios Savvides of the Carnegie Mellon University Biometrics Center. “There’s simply not enough information. So you have to employ super-resolution techniques and image-enhancement techniques to basically, what we call, the computer has to hallucinate.”

While the facial recognition software is still being developed, it is already a useful investigation tool. The NYPD unit has used the technology to analyze 1,900 images, which has turned up more than 386 matches and led to 141 arrests.

“When law enforcement has nothing to work on, have no leads, any lead is something,” says Savvides.

Warm up questions

1. What are some techniques that police use to investigate crimes?

2. Did you see any of the investigation of the Boston bombing? If so, what do you remember about how the suspects were identified?

3. How do you think police use technology to do their jobs?

Discussion questions

1. What did you find most interesting about this video?

2. What obstacles do you see to the future success of this technology?

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