Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Criminals face an uncertain future

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Facewatch is the latest online development in the law-enforcement v criminals high-tech arms race with cops and robbers adapting new digital techniques to outwit each other.

New technologies present new opportunities for law enforcement agencies to catch and prosecute criminals – from Smartphones that can report themselves stolen to the increasingly sophisticated police use of social media for gathering intelligence, investigating crimes and establishing evidence.

Of course, the same technologies present new opportunities for criminals too who have used a number of online tools to try to avoid detection or target victims.

Facewatch is a  privately operated “National low level crime reporting and image sharing system for businesses”.

It operates as a website and an app, Facewatch id, with versions available for Android, Apple and Blackberry phones.

How it works

Once a business registers with Facewatch, it can upload details of any crimes straight on to the website with details, witness statements and, critically, CCTV evidence and images of any suspects.

There are a number of key components to the scheme:

  • Police have full access to all the crime report details.
  • Businesses can share images of suspects with either other branches of their company or other local businesses which have joined the same Facewatch group.
  • Members of the public can log on to the website or use the app to look at photos of local criminals and see if they recognise anyone.
  • Businesses can provide a full package of evidence in a convenient way.
I tried the Facewatch Id site out myself. Access is immediate with no delay for registration or other log-in processes.
I found 182 images of suspects within a 5 mile radius of my postcode, so the site is obviously being used extensively by local businesses and police.
Disappointingly, I did not recognise anyone but in approximately three quarters of cases, the image was easily clear enough for me to have made an identification if I’d known the person.

Does it work?

Facewatch is endorsed by the Association of Chief Probation Officers and has testimonials from the Met Police Commissioner, @ngargan_npia and others on its website. It currently works with the Met and Cheshire Police Forces with other forces showing interest.

The main test of its effectiveness will be whether members of the public use the site and app and identify local criminals who they then report to the police.

According to the @Facewatch twitter account, the early signs are promising:


My one area of concern is that it will be important that Facewatch does not duplicate the work of individual forces who are already routinely post similar photos and videos on their websites and Facebook pages.

It will be important to integrate Facewatch and Facewatch Id into local police sites where members of the public are more likely to be browsing.

When I looked at the Cheshire and Met Facebook pages there were still links to CCTV footage and stills on these, rather than a link to the  Facewatch system.

Let’s hope that if Facewatch becomes the national system for sharing images of suspects,  the two systems are integrated.


Related posts you might like:

How burglars use social media

Criminals and law enforcement officials are early adopters of new technologies and social media in particular in their battle to outwit each other. There are plenty of ways in which burglars in particular can develop their lean systems to target and gather intelligence on potential victims and minimise the risks of getting caught. Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are particularly straightforward ways of finding out if someone is away on holiday or business. Google StreetView makes advance reconnaissance a piece of cake. The infographic below summarises some of the main techniques in current use…

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