The ability to recognize faces is a neurological trait that some people are simply better at than others. You can test yourself here. People at the lowest end of the spectrum lack this perceptual ability altogether. In these extreme cases, mothers cannot recognize their own children; colleagues don’t recognize someone they’ve worked with for years. At this level, the condition is called prosopagnosia, “face-blindness,” and some degree of difficulty recognizing faces may affect about 14 million Americans.
For many years, interest in this trait focused on people who have problems recognizing faces. When recent scientific advances indicated the trait exists on a continuum, this opened interest in people who have a superior ability to recognize faces. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) thought he had a job for them: identifying criminals.
London is the perfect place to test Neville’s idea, according to a fascinating article by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. London has the densest concentration of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the world—more than a million of them, mostly in the hands of homeowners and businesses. Keefe quotes former London Mayor Boris Johnson as saying, “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star.”
Crime fiction writers will have a field day with this. The “super-recognizers” seem ideally suited for solving cold cases and identifying suspects in real time. On the other side of the courtroom, smart defense attorneys—I’m thinking Mickey Haller here—might chip away at the facial-recognition ability of “eye-witnesses.”
In the 1990s, installation of cameras was promoted throughout London as a crime prevention measure, but it turned out to be a weak deterrent. There were too many images, they were too hard to analyze, and though the camera recorded lots of crimes, nothing came of this evidence, because the images couldn’t be matched to specific people. Last weekend, NewYork/NewJersey bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured on camera at both Manhattan bomb sites, but it was the fingerprint left at the scene that led to his identification and the match with the man seen on camera.
Early on, Neville headed a unit that analyzed this CCTV footage, trying to make identifications. It was slow work. But when he learned about super-recognizers, he saw the potential benefit of recruiting people who might be extra-skilled at the process.
Now a small, dedicated unit within the Met is assembling an image database, which has more than 100,000 pictures of unidentified suspects in crimes recorded by CCTV. Unit experts compare these images with mug shots of known criminals. They collect images of the same individual at different crime scenes; if the person in one of the images is finally identified, multiple crimes are solved. And, knowing when and where multiple images of the same person were captured gives clues to a criminal’s behavior patterns.
This is, says Scientific American, a very special super-power.