Home Office reveals progress on police ‘national facial-matching service’

As part of a major biometrics tech programme, the department is working on the delivery of a new digital platform to enable law enforcement to match images of individuals’ faces

The Home Office is progressing with plans to create a “national facial-matching service” for use by police forces around the country.

The department has published a commercial notice providing the market with an update on its work to deliver a such a service, and seeking engagement with suppliers and in-house police IT teams that may interact with the new platform.

“The Strategic Facial Matching (SFM) project is delivering infrastructure, software services and data migration to create a new national facial matching service to be used for law enforcement purposes,” the notice says.

The department’s original goal was that, by spring of 2024, the facial-matching system would be ready to launch “a foundational minimum viable product for retrospective facial recognition” – referring to matching that takes place after a photo or video has been recorded. This is differentiated from live facial recognition, which is designed to be able to identify and match people instantaneously from live video recording.

The creation of the facial-matching service forms part of the wider Home Office Biometrics project, a 10-year programme which aims to deliver a central national infrastructure through which immigration and police authorities can access and match data on individuals’ fingerprints, faces and other biometric information.

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At the heart of this is the biometric services gateway (BSG) system developed and managed by the Home Office itself which, “through a series of externally exposed APIs… provides connectivity to other systems and thereby to users of biometrics services”. These users include the department’s arm’s-length agencies, such as HM Passport Office and Border Force, as well as local police forces around the UK and overseas governments with which the UK has appropriate information-sharing agreements.

A rapid fingerprint matching service – connected to the gateway via an API – has been live since 2018.

The procurement notice says: “This service is currently consumed by 35 local police forces and immigration enforcement, each of which has either built or bought mobile platforms and apps which are integrated with the BSG API.”

Working is ongoing to deliver similar functionality for facial biometric data.

“Mobile biometric services could be extended into the modality of face, exploiting the ubiquitous imaging capability now omnipresent in smartphones, together with apps and infrastructure which is already integrated with the BSG,” the notice adds. “This use case of facial search is referred to by policing as operator-initiated facial recognition and is currently amongst the prioritised requirements of policing to maximise the benefits of facial recognition technology.”

Work on an API to connect the gateway to the nascent facial-matching service has thus far delivered a working “interface”, which the department wishes to present “policing suppliers and/or in-house IT departments” in a workshop to be held on 17 July.

“This workshop will be aimed at… [those[ that wish to understand this updated interface and will provide visibility of the interface changes and will enable the market to understand any necessary development and testing that may be required to support this interface in the future”, the notice says.

The Home Office Biometrics project formally got underway in 2014. The most recent set of annual departmental major project data reveals that, during the 2022/23 fiscal year, the final delivery date of the project was pushed back by six months: from September 2024 to March 2025. The overall cost was also recalculated and raised by £70m to a new total of £1.22bn.

The later delivery and increased expense was attributed to “challenges delivering the strategic matcher project” element of the programme.

Sam Trendall

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