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Facewatch: Fighting crime with facial recognition

Simon_Gordon_Facewatch.jpgFacewatch’s chairman Simon Gordon explains his plans to bring the benefits of facial recognition technology to UK companies, with big implications for crime prevention

Most people see thousands of things in life they’d like to change. But very few actually have the impetus to do anything. Managing director of Gordon’s Wine Bar in London, Simon Gordon is one of the rare exceptions. He became increasingly fed up with the impact of crime on his customers and other businesses, so in 2010 he founded Facewatch, a company offering a secure cloud-based platform designed to speed up the crime reporting process. It also allows businesses and the public to share intelligence, such as images of people involved in incidents.

“Over the last six years [we’ve been] proving that it works and that it’s effective. All the way through the long-term goal was to have facial recognition to stop crime from happening,” he explains. 

However, one of the issues Gordon encountered was that many businesses struggle to upload their CCTV footage due to not having internet access on their premises. In response Facewatch created Facewatch Mobile; a cellular handset with the company’s applications pre-installed. It provides PTT over cellular and allows users to share video, images and other media in a secure Whatsapp-like environment, using M2M SIMs. 

Gordon notes that a lot of people don’t realise that “it is illegal to use WhatsApp for sharing intelligence because the data goes offshore. This is a secure way; it gives you all the benefits of WhatsApp but is specifically designed for secure personal information to do with crime… It [also] enables you to do a crime report in about 30 seconds.”

The idea is to combine it with facial recognition analytics and CCTV cameras so that “security guards and shops [can take] a picture of someone who has committed a crime and then the camera can warn if they come in again.” 

Gordon adds that “we’ve built Facewatch so it’s on a specific locked down device, but we can put it onto [other] devices. What we don’t want is people downloading this from app stores and using it, because it is designed for sensitive data that needs to be controlled.”

Facewatch could form part of a more flexible approach to security in the future. Gordon believes there will be a move from retailers employing their own security guards to mobile security personnel that look after multiple retailers. 

“It reduces cost, gives a great service standard and you’ve got mobile devices to call them [when needed]. [With] Facewatch Mobile you press [a] button that sends an alert to everyone in your area and asks them to come and help you. They can be backed up with remote monitoring.” This involves linking a store’s CCTV system and alarms into a central monitoring station so if a panic button is triggered the monitoring station can log in to see what’s going on.

To broaden Facewatch’s appeal Gordon is seeking Federation of Communication Services members who would be interested in acting as Facewatch resellers. He points out that the technology’s usefulness is not limited purely to mobile phone users. “There are different areas where they can add value. First, [users] can link PTT on our device to existing radio schemes… and that would then enable [them] to communicate between radios and the Facewatch Mobile devices.” 

He also recognises FCS members as experts in network deployment and the advantages of using private Wi-Fi and LTE networks if additional resilience is required. “To anyone that says mobile phones are not secure and will go down in the event of a terrorist alert or whatever, that is exactly where the FCS members come in because they can create very strong Wi-Fi or LTE networks… We want [them] to be out there, helping us get into anywhere people are using radios.”

He says that Facewatch Mobile can create “a very strong link between businesses, the reseller and the police so that the FCS reseller, having sold the basic device, can then upsell new technologies. We’re putting something in someone’s hand where you can keep selling more and more products. You can just go back and layer more things on top of it.

Gordon believes that as the police increasingly adopt innovative mobile communications businesses in the private sector should follow suit. “I think the private sector should be leading it and helping the police rather than the police leading the way,” he says.

He describes a scenario in which someone who has committed crimes at a large shopping centre in the past drives into its carpark. With facial recognition technology the centre’s security staff would instantly receive an alert, allowing them to watch for that individual. Cameras inside would pick up the person’s face and generate an alert if they came in off the street. Facewatch has partnered with facial recognition companies Imagus, Herta Security, NEC, and Allevate to allow this to happen.  

“[Our facial recognition system] is cloud-based; it sends all the images of people into the cloud and we do all the processing there. What’s good about that is if you can then do analytics. [Theoretically you could] track someone from one shop to another… subject to data protection.”

Gordon believes that Facewatch’s system could save a major retailer with a chain of around a thousand stores “at least £35 million a year”, assuming a 30 per cent reduction in stock losses from shoplifting “which is pretty much the minimum that we’ve reduced shop theft wherever we’ve deployed Facewatch. In one town centre we reduced crime by 45 per cent.”

He adds that facial recognition can be used to generate a lot of marketing intelligence, such as the sex and age of shoppers and how long they stay in certain areas. Another company is analysing Facewatch’s data to create algorithms that can recognise when someone is shoplifting or needs service. 

“We’ve launched a product called Forecourt Eye with another partner to stop people from leaving petrol stations without paying. It will warn [the petrol station when someone] on a blacklist has driven in,” he says. 

When facial recognition software is used at scale its accuracy is crucial, to save time and resources and avoid false positives. “It depends on how the camera is set up,” Gordon explains. “If it’s set up correctly then we’re in the high 90s [for accuracy], but it does depend on lighting conditions and so on.” 

He adds that there’s always a need for a human to make the final judgement. “Our system shows the image of the person who has just been seen and the image that you enrolled and you can say match or no match. If you say match then you can start [acting on that match] and it adds [the more recent face] to the database, so it’s constantly improving.” 

Gordon says that a pilot recently took place in a shopping centre in Brazil, which used one camera for 10 days. It took 24,000 images and generated 88 alerts, of which “two or possibly three” were criminals on a state-wide watchlist. Because of the pilot one of Facewatch’s partners has a contract for 460 cameras for 17 large shopping centres.

He adds that reducing business crime isn’t just about technology. “One big retailer told me he got rid of all his security guards and theft halved because he made the staff in the shop responsible. He paid them on the level of theft in that store so they were incentivised to reduce it.

“It’s not just the police and the security guys’ job to reduce theft. The more people you get involved and the more awareness you get, the more you’re going to reduce it. And by throwing in the technology that’s available we’ll see massive reductions in theft over the next few years, I’m convinced of it.” 

CV – Simon Gordon
Simon Gordon began his career as a chartered accountant. 

Following a two-year stint at Deloitte UK, which ended in 1982, he spent three years as a financial controller at Arbuthnot Latham Bank (one of the original private banks) before becoming finance director at Royal Trust Fund Management. 

This lasted for five years, after which he continued in the same role at Skandia Life (now Old Mutual), which manages assets worth around £10 billion. 

After 12 years in the role he left the world of finance in 2003 to become the managing director of Gordon’s Wine Bar – the oldest of its kind in London. 

He still works there following his appointment as Facewatch’s chairman in April 2010. 

Facewatch is a secure online crime reporting and information sharing platform that enables businesses, public and the police to share images within groups for crime prevention, and to submit digital evidence files, using a simple interface, to the police to help solve crimes.

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