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Finnish police, customs now able to use facial ID tech, but infrastructure not in place

Authorities say the AI-based technology can help to expedite criminal investigations.

Facial recognition technology can identify people the street. Image: Andriy Popov / AOP

Finnish Police and Customs were granted permission to use automatic facial recognition technology at the beginning of June. The Finnish Border Guard has had the right to use this tech since 2005.

The use of facial ID tech, enabled in Finland by a surveillance law approved earlier this year, allows authorities to compare people's faces captured by surveillance cameras to images of individuals stored in official databases.

According to Finland's recently updated data protection act, however, facial recognition tech can only be used by law enforcement agencies to prevent, detect or investigate crimes — or to reach wanted suspects.

Police claim that investigations can be carried out more quickly when such images are screened by computers rather than humans, and Customs director Sami Rakshit said he shared that opinion.

"Our view is that the new system will make it easier for people to search through a stream of passengers," Rakshit said.

Permit in place, but tech not up to date

Authorities said that despite having the permission to use the software, Finland's current tech infrastructure doesn't yet support the use of automatic facial recognition. Currently, humans — and not artificial intelligence programs — handle surveillance camera images, according to the police and customs.

"Of course, we have cameras, but they don’t automatically identify anyone. We don’t have face recognition technology in our cameras yet," inspector Pekka Sallinen from the National Police Board of Finland said.

"Our camera equipment is being gradually updated to enable biometric face identification," Rakshit added.

While the Finnish Border Guard has had the rights to use face recognition tech for years, they said its scope has been limited.

"Automatic face detection is not yet available for large-scale use. We use it to the extent it makes sense to do so. This is an emerging technology field that will continue to develop," the head of the Border Guard's border control unit, Lieutenant Colonel Tuomas Laosmaa said, adding he did not want to reveal how the technology was used, as it is a "tactical and technical secret".

Big brother monitoring?

Liisa Mäkinen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Turku, studies the use of surveillance cameras and said she is concerned about the developments in Finland.

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"We are a long ways away from becoming an Orwellian society" Image: Yle

"It's two completely different things to use surveillance cameras to monitor public disturbances versus using a system that can identify people from images and match them to information in existing databases," she said.

However, inspector Sallinen who said he constantly encounters talk of "Big Brother" constantly monitoring citizens, said Finland is nowhere close to such a world.

"We are a long ways away from becoming an Orwellian society, where people can be controlled with cameras," he said.

"This won't impact ordinary people"

Some experts and citizens in the country have been reportedly wary of the use of face recognition tech — for instance, the small Pirate Party has expressed concern about the threat of losing privacy in the past. Researcher Mäkinen approved of people's wariness on the matter.

"I think it is good that citizens are critical of [issues like] who has access to the data, where the information will be used and how these are combined. I think it's good to ask such questions" Mäkinen said.

She also said there is no clear evidence of camera surveillance regularly helping to carry out criminal investigations. "Research on this is very contradictory. In some cases, camera surveillance may be useful, but not always," Mäkinen added.

However, according to Rakshit, automatic face recognition is only used for crime prevention and investigation and said the new permissions granted in June do not undermine citizens' legal protections.

"All of the material is entirely in our possession. Camera- or system-vendors do not have access to the captured images. The law amendment won’t largely impact lives of ordinary people because we do not save their images. Citizens' legal protection will improve as government action can better target the right people," he said.