The UK government last week announced investments in live facial recognition (LFR) and research and development for remote scanning technologies, in an attempt to crack down on the rising levels of knife crime being seen across the country.

The government is allocating £4 million to LFR and scanning technology, with the introduction of four new police vans with facial recognition software installed. According to policing minister Chris Philp, initial trials have shown early success, leading to over 100 arrests of serious criminals who would otherwise not have not been caught, including a man wanted for two rapes, dating back to 2017. 


Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, Chris Philp suggests that the ability to identify more people on watchlists could result in a significant rise in apprehensions of people committing knife crime.

But what is this new technology? And what does it mean for police presence on the streets going forwards?

What is Live Facial Recognition?

Live facial recognition (LFR) is a cutting-edge technology that uses real-time video feeds to identify individuals by analysing their facial features. Cameras equipped with LFR software scan faces in a crowd and match them against a database of known individuals, such as suspects or missing persons. This technology is increasingly being adopted by police forces worldwide, including in the UK, to enhance public safety and security.

LFR mobile units are used in busy areas to check individuals against a select list of people who are wanted by the police or the courts. 

The effectiveness of these units is well proven. In December, deployments of live facial recognition in Croydon led to 15 arrests for offences including rape, robbery, fraud, grievous bodily harm and possession of class A drugs.  

How does LFR work?

  1. LFR systems are set up in areas with high rates of knife crime, such as busy streets, transportation hubs, and public events. The goal is to deter potential offenders and quickly identify those carrying weapons.
  2. When the LFR system detects a match with a person on the police watchlist, it sends an alert to officers in the vicinity. This allows for immediate action, such as stopping and searching the individual, potentially preventing violent incidents before they occur.
  3. LFR complements existing surveillance methods, providing a proactive tool rather than a reactive one. Traditional CCTV systems record incidents that have already happened, while LFR can help prevent crimes by identifying and apprehending suspects in real time.

What are the concerns with biometrics being used in policing?

Critics have seized on lapses in biometrics best practices and what they see as lax oversight to suggest that the UK should follow the EU’s lead on LFR.

Privacy concerns: Critics argue that LFR technology infringes on individual privacy and civil liberties. There is concern about the potential for misuse and the lack of transparency regarding the databases used.

Accuracy and bias: There have been instances where LFR systems have misidentified individuals, raising concerns about the technology’s reliability and potential biases, particularly against minority communities.

What is ‘hotspot policing’?

Hotspot policing is a law enforcement strategy that focuses on identifying and targeting areas with a high concentration of criminal activity. This approach is based on the idea that crime is not evenly distributed across a city but tends to cluster in specific locations.

What does the advancement in crime-busting tech mean for traditional face-to-face policing?

Home Secretary James Cleverly said last week, during an appearance at The Times Crime and Justice Commission: “Knife crime ruins lives and recent tragedies show there’s a lot more to be done to take these dangerous weapons off our streets. No technology can replace the presence of officers on our streets, but as criminals develop new strategies towards crime, so must we.”

Policing minister Chris Philp has said he would like to see officers ramp up their use of stop and search to tackle knife crime, particularly in London where it has dropped compared to other areas of the country. Writing in the Telegraph, he described stop and search as “a vital tool in taking knives off our streets, yet it’s not used nearly often enough.”

Future of LFR in policing

Despite the controversies, the potential benefits of LFR in preventing knife crime and enhancing public safety are significant. The UK police continue to refine and regulate the use of this technology to balance security needs with privacy concerns. As LFR technology evolves, it is likely to become an integral part of modern policing, provided its use is carefully monitored and transparently managed.

Our upcoming programme: Policing for a Safer Tomorrow

The policing landscape has never changed as fast and as much as it has today, with crime and the needs of the community becoming more and more complex and public confidence at a low. However, it is a sector that is determined to build back trust, delivering a police service that is both effective and inclusive, ensuring that communities throughout the UK remain safe.

To showcase the positive work in action within the policing sector, ITN Business is producing a news-style programme, ‘Policing for a Safer Tomorrow’. Launching in November, it will feature contributions from industry thought leaders including the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC). The programme will explore how policing is adapting to challenges and complexities, ensuring the sector is more efficient, productive and sustainable, so that it can remain fit for the future.


Useful resources and further reading: