parent and child holding hands

This incredible system helped find 3000 missing children in four days

As anyone who has ever momentarily lost sight of their little one in a supermarket, or at a crowded train station, will understand, the idea of your child going missing is the ultimate worst nightmare. Yet, it is one that more people than you would think are already familiar with; in 2017, there were over 464,000 missing child reports logged in the United States alone, according to data from the FBI’s National Crime Information Centre.

Fortunately, the majority of missing children will be returned safe and sound within 24 hours. However, for those who aren't immediately reunited with their loved one, the waiting and wondering can prove torturous. But now, police in Delhi, India, have been trialling a new way of using modern facial recognition technology to solve this age-old problem - and the results have proven incredible. 

close up of a little girl's eye Credit: Pexels

It was child welfare group Bachpan Bachao Andolan who spotted the potential for facial recognition systems to help them solve the mammoth problem of finding the country's missing children and reuniting them with their families. "India currently has almost 200,000 missing children and about 90,000 lodged in various child care institutions," Bhuwan Ribhu, who works for the group told The Better India. He added: "It is almost impossible for anyone manually go through photographs to match the children."

So, Bachpan Bachao Andolan helped to develop a model of the software, which stores the facial features of a child and compares them with photographs in a database to instantly confirm an identity. They then approached the Delhi High Court and asked them to make the data contained in TrackChild, a national database of missing children run by India's Ministry of Women and Child Development, available to the Delhi police.

The court agreed - having already criticised the same ministry for not sharing details of missing children with the police - and instructed Delhi police to go ahead and trial the system. Within four days, they were able to digitally cross-reference photos of over 60,000 missing children with the images of around 45,000 children in care homes around the city. In total, the system managed to find an astonishing 2,930 matches. Authorities say that, while they will not name any of the minors, they have now begun the process of reuniting them with their families.

Although it is yet to be confirmed whether this scheme will be used further or trialled again in another of India's busy cities, Yashwant Jain of India's National Commission for Protection of Child Rights was understandably enthusiastic about the results, saying: "If such a type of software helps trace missing children and reunite them with their families, nothing can be better than this."

A street scene at Chawri Bazaar, Delhi Credit: Flickr/ Saad Akhtar

However, despite the program’s early success, it is true that the overall effectiveness of such facial recognition systems has been called into question time and time again. In May 2018 it was revealed that, in a trial run of similar technology by the Metropolitan Police, the UK's largest police force, false positives were generated in 98 per cent of cases. In this instance, video footage taken at large events was matched against the police database; Martha Spurrier, the director of civil liberties group Liberty even claimed that "we saw a young woman being matched with a balding man". 

Nor does facial recognition technology address the issues causing children to go missing in the first place. While stories such as that of Saroo Brierley - an Indian boy who was accidentally separated from his mother at age five, and whose autobiography Lion has recently been adapted into a Hollywood movie - would suggest that a reunion is always a happy and longed-for event, the reality of it is often more complex. Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based anti-trafficking charity, told Reuters that in India, "up to 70 per cent of the missing children found are victims of trafficking and slavery."

In the US, meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the children reported missing every year are runaways - the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children explain on their website that, of the more than 27,000 cases of missing children that they assisted on in 2017, 91 per cent were runaways. Although some of these may well be in light of minor disagreements with parents, it cannot be denied that many other cases were spurred due to much deeper problems - and in the belief that running away was a last resort.

All in all, it's clear that technology has huge potential to help keep kids safe. Not only can it locate children and reunite them with loving families, but the significant drop in the number of children being reported missing over the past twenty years has been attributed to the growth of social media and mobile phones.

However, while facial recognition may allow children to be found more quickly, and potentially lead to them being put under state care if they need it, it does not stop them from being returned to the same situations that they were fleeing from in the first place. So, until we're dealing with the real societal issues of why children go missing from home - whether that's in the US, India, or anywhere else in the world - then it's a problem that's going to continue.