Why big data beats Robocop

David Leppan has spent the last 20 years collecting data. Thanks to technology, the scope and impact of his work have expanded massively – from detecting suspicious bank accounts to fighting terrorism.

In 2000, David Leppan launched his first company, World-Check, out of his mother’s spare bedroom in Cape Town. At the time, he worked for Thomson Financial, supplying data to banks in Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein and Luxemburg. “While working with Swiss banks, I was approached to create a database of high-risk individuals. That’s how the idea for World-Check came to life.” Not long after that, 9/11 happened and suddenly there was a global demand for that kind of data. “Within ten years, we went from a very small company to one that employed 500 analysts and supplied data to over 5,000 financial institutions and 250 government agencies.” Today, World-Check is part of Thomson Financial. 

Catching terrorists before they attack
In 2017, Leppan joined Captis Intelligence, a global industry leader in security and crime prevention, as Chairman of the Advisory Board. “When we started, we wanted to build the world’s largest criminal database and using technology - specifically facial recognition technology - to create a ‘face print’ database. At it stands, there are around 25 million individuals on the database and it’s likely to grow to 100 million in the coming years.” By connecting this ‘face print’ database with video surveillance systems, clients can identify suspicious individuals in under one second. “Our goal is to prevent crime by identifying those on the verge of committing a terrorist act. Historically, this was easier because of how terrorism functioned. Groups of people tended to plan attacks over a longer period, but today we see many terrorists working on their own, so identifying high-risks individuals has become more challenging.”

Looking for skeletons in the closet
Leppan is convinced that technology will become increasingly important in the fight against crime. “Cameras, technology, and databases such as the Captis database are key to how we’ll prevent crime going forward or identify culprits when a crime has been committed.” The scope goes far beyond police stations and border controls. A good example is the financial services industry. Banks see huge benefit in using data intelligence to protect the security of their buildings and staff. They could also use it to audit their client databases. “If there are skeletons in the closet, the only way we’ll find them is by searching with faces rather than names. Moreover, the financial community is exploring how to incorporate facial recognition and big data into ATM machines to tackle credit and debit card fraud. With this technology, they can ensure that the person using the card is indeed its rightful owner.”

Big data can help convict kidnappers 
Fighting and preventing crime is not only about identification. Another important element is investigation. “Where credit card fraud occurs, or fraud in general, there are teams within financial institutions who deal with these breaches. We don’t just look at criminals, but also at tools that help clients to search things like the dark web or social media.” A ‘face-print’ database can also help identify where someone has been taken in a kidnapping situation. “In Las Vegas, a 15 year old girl was kidnapped off the street by a group of men. Thankfully, we got clear footage of their faces from CCTV cameras, so we could identify them swiftly. We pointed the authorities in the right direction and the girl was rescued”, Leppan recalls.

Names can be changed more easily than faces
Leppan has observed a fundamental change in intelligence gathering over the past 20 years with a clear shift from names to faces. “When I started out, our focus was to create a database that used people’s names as the principle means of identification, but if you’ve something to hide, the first thing you’ll change is your name.” Leppan cites the Interpol database of lost and stolen passports and ID documents, which has a staggering 70 million reports of stolen or lost IDs, “and that’s likely to be a small proportion of the real number”, he adds. This is what prompted the move toward faces. “Faces can be changed, too, but not to the extent that we can no longer identify them.” 

Technology – a double-edged sword
Leppan admits that technology is a double-edged sword as databases can be hacked and data stolen. “We need to recognise that data is being collected on us around the clock. It’s almost impossible, unless you live in a far-flung corner of the world, to stay off the radar, simply because of how we choose to live. Much of that data is collected by private organisations whose primary concern is not necessarily our safekeeping.” Nevertheless, he firmly believes in the need for technology to prevent and fight crime more actively. “You’d be amazed how many airports in Europe have CCTV without facial recognition technology. Just as we’re all being recorded, so too are crimes. Having footage at hand to support capture and prosecution could be hugely helpful, but as a society we’re not proactively fighting crime. This simply has to change.” 

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