Arenas face up to eye in the sky
DRONES equipped with facial recognition software would scan crowds at sports stadiums and major events in a police plan to boost security.
The “eye in the sky” would extend an 18-month NSW Police trial of 88 drones — some small enough to fit into the palm of a hand and fly into buildings — launched in June.
The hi-tech machines will be hooked up to software that records facial features, similar to airport security scanners, from next year. Police have been trained to use drones in situations ranging from sieges to hunting suspects on the run, detecting drugs and searching for missing children.
“They give us a bird’s-eye view of any emergency — they can go where humans cannot,” the unit’s commander Detective Sergeant Matthew Harmer said. “It’s just a question of time before facial recognition is integrated into the drones and used for public order and high-risk situations.”
A senior police source told The Saturday Telegraph: “We already film people using drones — facial recognition is about intelligence gathering, matching faces in crowds … against those of known persons on police databases.”
The drones have a range of about 2km and are equipped with hi-res cameras, video link, infra-red sensors and powerful computers. Civil aviation rules limit them to an altitude of 400 feet. The facial recognition software is equivalent to Sydney Airport’s SmartGate automatic passport checkpoints.
Under current laws, people can be filmed and photographed in public places without their consent.
But Australian Privacy Foundation chairman David Vaile warned police using aerial technology in emergencies could spill over into “scope creep” whereby drones are used for daily policing.
“The problem with drones is you don’t know who is piloting it,” he said.
“If you get one hovering outside your bedroom window, is it the police, the local council, a pervert, burglar or a Google mapping service?”
Mr Vaile also warned that facial recognition technology was limited by “so many variables” including lighting, angle, skin tone and distance.
“There will need to be a lot of police power to do the human checking on the spot to prevent innocent people from being arrested,” he said.
Sgt Harmer said drones could prove useful in a range of situations, from providing vision inside a situation such as a hostage siege to using thermal 3D imaging for searches.
“The beauty of drones is you can get footage straight to tactical command, you can see obstacles, people hiding behind buildings, you can see runners going out the back door,” he said.