Face-matching video analysis may be a privacy battleground, but the omens are good for long-term investment.

Video capture should be the single greatest driver of increased police hosting and data storage requirements over the next few years. Body-worn cameras are this year’s big police investment story. NPCC chair Sara Thornton’s musings about citizens capturing crime scene footage on mobile phones, and the increasing public use of time-stamped dashboard and cycle helmet cameras, suggest multiple further sources of volume video to aid digital intelligence and investigation.

Police CIOs investing in data infrastructure to support this video explosion need to think about analytics as much as capacity, and the key question is how far the analysis goes beyond metadata. There’s a wide consensus that facial recognition analytics has the potential to become invaluable for police forces. Currently, though, investment in face-matching platforms is sporadic and tentative. For the space to become mature and for scalable, robust solutions to emerge, the policy debate will need to evolve.

And it’s doing so in Leicestershire. This week, the constabulary’s PCC Clive Loader and chief constable Simon Cole established an ethics, integrity and complaints committee, and tasked it with scrutinising Leicestershire Police’s use of digital facial recognition.

The force needed to take a lead here, after suffering a surprising level of criticism at the deployment of video scanning and face-matching at the Download Festival. The trial was fully funded by NEC, tickets made it clear that video surveillance was a condition of entry, and organised criminal activity is a blight on festivals. Still, self-appointed guardians of privacy at headliners Muse and Big Brother Watch earned helpful coverage from the affair, and it is to Cole’s credit that he has subsequently defended video analytics on the record, calling it as significant a breakthrough for policing as fingerprinting and DNA coding.

The chair and vice-chair of the ethics committee are legal academics, well placed to take a proportionate and balanced view, and the priorities for the committee are explicitly to reassure the public and to reinforce confidence in policing. It’s reasonable to hope that some sensible guidelines emerge which will enable the force to demonstrate acceptable usage cases.

And when ethical guidelines emerge locally, Whitehall should find it attractive to defer to them. A couple of weeks ago the Home Office replied to complaints from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that biometrics policy was lagging behind concerns over privacy and security. It promised a biometrics strategy by the end of 2015, while remaining tight-lipped over work which is even at this late stage apparently still in the consultation and development phase. Nonetheless, the response highlights “public protection and citizen convenience”, cites multiple benefits from biometrics, champions a robust standards regime driven by the Centre for Applied Science and Technology, and floats a potentially extended role for the Biometrics Commissioner. It does not sound as if Mike Penning or Theresa May are minded to allow the opportunities brought by enhanced biometrics to be smothered by overly cautious regulators.

Public opinion and press coverage are unpredictable, particularly when the applications for digital intelligence are unclear and there is any suggestion that data is trawled for or that surveillance is disproportionate. HMIC in Scotland is carrying out an investigation of the current usage of facial recognition technology, at the behest of a justice secretary with privacy concerns. The national debate will twist and turn. But PCCs – now supported by Andy Burnham, for what that’s worth – hold a localism trump card.

When the elected commissioner and the chief constable are willing to delegate ethical considerations to respected local thinkers, as in Leicestershire, they gain the authority to plan an effective facial video analytics strategy. Systems integrators and police CIOs hoping for a green light to develop the requisite platforms should be cautiously optimistic. The prize at stake is for video analytics solutions to move beyond experimental one-off deployments to mature solutions, in which security and training can be industrialised, permissions can be managed across a force, and processes can easily be set to comply with local and national policies.