Paceville is test case for facial recognition CCTV that could be deployed nationwide

Paceville could most likely be the first town where a security system that deploys facial recognition software to enhance law enforcement is first deployed

All eyes on Paceville.

Malta’s entertainment mecca could be destined to become the experimental town for a controversial security system that will deploy facial recognition software to enhance safety and assist police officers.

St Julian’s is one of the toughest beats for Maltese policemen, with national data placing the pleasant seaside town top for national crime, with five times the national average. Valletta, Floriana and Sliema are close behind.

But a new government company called Safe City Malta, part of the government’s public-private partnership arm Projects Malta, is planning to present a proof of concept for Paceville.

The system, as explained by director Joseph Cuschieri – who is also the executive chairman of the Malta Gaming Authority – is to deploy high-definition CCTV cameras with facial recognition software that can identify criminals.

“Paceville could be a prime candidate to test the system, as a town that offers a security challenge,” Cuschieri said.

The company, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese technology giant Huawei, itself also based in Malta at Smart City, will embark on a joint initiative to test the equipment.

“Currently we are preparing the proof of concept and finalising a bill of quantities so that work can start with local stakeholders,” Cuschieri said.

The technology will effectively wire all Paceville CCTV systems to a central command centre. Using high-definition CCTV cameras, the system will use facial recognition software to identify people whose identities are already known, as they enter and exit the town’s perimeter.

“You can have the system inside a mobile control centre for police, who can feed a list of identities so that the system picks out people’s identities as they enter the area. The police out on the beat will have devices to relay data at the high speeds of 4G transmission,” Cuschieri said.

“Even if a fight breaks out, and witnesses say the perpetrator was wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, the HD-CCTV system can pick out all such persons so that the police can focus on who to apprehend.”

Although the project is still in its embryonic stage, the advanced Huawei technology will be installed and commissioned by Huawei engineers over the next six months. Once the joint innovation centre, as it is called, is in operation, field trials will be carried with the aim for a potential investment in a nationwide deployment of the Safe City concept in the longer term.

Cuschieri was clear that such a concept could be used to take on many security challenges Malta is facing as a growing economy.

Once the joint innovation centre is in operation, field trials will be carried with the aim for a potential investment in a nationwide deployment of the Safe City concept

“From a strategic perspective, Malta has a large amount of traffic and its resources cannot cope. This kind of technology can help in traffic and parking management, as well as in crime prevention and protection.”

Cuschieri said Malta has experienced rapid population growth over the past few years brought about by a significant increase in expatriates, year-on-year increases in inbound tourism, thriving urban development and economic activity, and increasing technological sophistication.

“Malta cannot ignore the ever-increasing threat of global terrorism. This means that the country must remain well prepared in managing public safety. It therefore needs to continue investing in state-of-the-art technology and services that complement existing infrastructure and capabilities, to meet its longer-term goals of socio-economic development.”

Huawei’s 4G technology will include telecommunications equipment, cloud computing and a state-of-the-art video analytics platform, and will also be available for academic research, primarily at post-graduate level at the University of Malta.

Safe city or privacy nightmare?

Perhaps nothing more than facial recognition and the ability of technology to process the images of our life as we carry it out in public, illustrates the awesome power to document our every single movement – Big Brother style, nightmarishly akin to a Black Mirror episode.

The prospect of wiring Paceville to a central nervous system that is impervious to criminal resolve sounds reassuring to those who see Malta’s entertainment mecca as an incubator for danger.

But it also raises huge privacy concerns. When vast networks of surveillance come into play, their fair use rests on a pact of trust only found in liberal democracies, where notions of data protection and human rights are a guarantee.

Malta’s vast identity card database is in itself already a vast repository of data that can easily be connected to facial recognition software. In this, Malta is no different to the United States or China. Such data allows law enforcement to track down criminals.

But facial recognition software that can filter out markers for intelligence or sexuality could easily be used by private companies, or illiberal governments, to single out ‘undesirables’ and clamp down on human rights. When the ground shifts from a liberal democracy to a dictatorship, such futuristic technology is no longer emancipatory but the stuff of nightmares.

Safe city, elsewhere

Huawei’s MOU with Malta is not the first of the pioneering Safe City projects: in Kenya, licence plate recognition and violation detection was employed during Pope Francis’s visit back in 2015, where crime decreased by 46% in those areas in Nairobi under surveillance.

More impressive is Huawei’s reach inside the industry that specialises in surveillance tech: it has over 100 ICT partners and 550 service partners like Accenture, software vendors Hexagon, Milestone, SAP, and iOmniscient. Today, the Safe City solution is applied in 100 cities across 30 countries to monitor 400 million inhabitants.

It is the prospect of this concept travelling farther into the bustle of Maltese life that should raise privacy concerns.

Cities like Moscow are saturated with CCTV cameras, and companies like NTechLab have developed an app – FindFace – that tracks profiles on VKontakte, a Russian ‘Twitter’. The city-wide surveillance of some 147,000 cameras now covers 95% of apartment building entrances in Moscow.

The software can detect faces and compare them with law-enforcement databases, but it can also cross-check and follow a suspect’s route thanks to multiple cameras. Promoters of the system will argue that people not registered in a government criminal database do not get tracked, and only benefit from the safety such technology brings by tracking criminals. But human rights and privacy advocates will be the first to raise a red flag about the opportunities for law enforcement to crack down on political dissent.

In London, the government’s independent Surveillance Camera Commissioner wrote to the National Police Chiefs Council to warn that using facial recognition technology risks infringing people’s privacy. The software was deployed to track crowds in the Notting Hill Carnival, as well as terror suspects.

Tony Porter noted the “significantly increased capabilities to intrude upon the privacy of citizens” but added that “if not responsibly considered and regulated” it could undermine public confidence.

Porter suggested that more transparency on how the database is used could ensure whether the tracking is proportionate and legitimate.

The UK also has a Biometrics Commissioner, who revealed that the country has 19 million custody photographs on file on the police national database, many of whom were released without charge.