The Face of Evil

Criminal Lombroso

Published in Mediamatic, fall 1989

Details have been supplanted by the impression of the whole. Words have been replaced by the image. The authorities no longer have to rely on minute observation of an anomalous ear or a big nose to identify a criminal. At the beginning of this century the police used detailed manuals to arrive at a uniform coding system for each separate part of the human face.
Nowadays witness and detective operate a computer with a design program. The police-officer's experience gives shape to what the witness or victim remembers, the role of fantasy is reduced to a minimum, and together they create a portrait of the offender.

In this way digital, total images are created, requiring new ways of observation. In addition, data and photographs of existing criminals are stored in gigantic memories. However, the two systems are not yet connected to each other. Indeed, accessing the databases still proceeds along the lines of the 'characteristic features' that were employed at the turn of the century. So what is new about police automation? Can the computer store all Evil? What are the restrictions in space and time; will the computer continue to swallow everything?

Police duties include tracking down fugitive criminals, escaped prisoners, missing persons, as well as keeping an eye on dangerous professional criminals such as armed robbers, opium and arms smugglers, dangerous extremists, etc. The number of dangerous professional and political criminals is continually increasing due to various causes (political constellation), while at the same time detection and surveillance of these people by tbe authorities is becoming increasingly difficult, as a result of the expansion of the big cities and the means of transport. In the past, after committing his crime, the criminal would preferably hide in a nearby forest, whereas now he jumps on a train or a bus, or disappears by boat to other regions and countries, making an easy escape from thc police. (Smith, Soekaboemi, 1927)

Danger must be objectively expressed in data, the enemy must be dissected, converted into data. He must become tangible, distinguishable from the innocent by the naked eye. He must no longer be allowed to vanish into nature, or disappear in the distance.

Should a police-officer in the street be in doubt about the identiftcation of a dangerous criminal or extremist, he must be able to obtain certainty quickly and surely; on the one hand, innocent and loyal citizens should not be harassed by unnecessary and time-consuming arrests (involving superfluous work and a waste of valuable time), while on the other hand we must avoid a situation in which dangerous criminals are released because rapid identification is impossible, with the fatal consequence that tbey can continue their pernicious practices elsewhere. (Smith, Soekaboemi, 1927).
In addition to dactyloscopy, Bertillon's portrait parlé was another new technique for detection and identification introduced in the police force at the beginning of this century. It is based on the composite structure of the human head and gives indications as to how the different parts should be described.
Manuals from 1911 and 1927 show clearly that in those days words were the startingpoint from which the image was then to be formed.
Something that cannot be put into words, cannot be transferred to someone else's memory. In his portrait parlé Bertillon therefore described the human head and all its constituents in a clear and simple manner, making it possible to identify somebody in the street with certainty, even if, for instance, only a telegraphic description is available. (Reiss c.s., Haarlem, 1911)

Rigid categories are defined for cach part of the face: the forehead, the nose, the ear, the lips, the mouth, the chin, the general outline of the profile, the outline of nose/mouth, the profile of the skull as such, general outlines of the face, the eyebrows, the eyelids, the eyeballs, the eye-sockets, the neck, wrinkles, hair, beard, colour of the face, the eye, shoulder width, waist, posture, general impression, voice and manner of speaking, special features. The amount of attention paid to the ear is remarkable. One in four descriptions deals with our auditory organ. (Although there is no mention of devil's cars ... ).
The ear is the most characteristic feature of the human face. Indeed, its manifold depths and heights offer so great a variety in composition that it is almost impossible to meet two persons with ears that are absolutely identical in all respects. Furthermore, the ear does not change its form between birth and death. (..) The earlobe is that soft, well-rounded protuberance that forms the lower part of the auricle. We shall study it carefully, starting with the form of its free ridge, the way it is joined to the cheek, the general form of its surface and finally its dimensions and characteristic features.
Once more it is pointed out that, when using this method in actual practice, the pofice-officer must focus on details: In all cases he must realize that to identify somebody according to the description, he must not look at tbeface as a whole, but at its separate parts, one by one. (Reiss c.s., Haarlem 1911)

Efficiency and Overview

In the town of Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, a brand new building has heen erected, which is only accessible by a drawbridge. The high outer walls are made of glass. The inside of the building is light and spacious - steel blue combined with grey and off- white. Well-groomed ladies, dressed in colours matching the building, are waiting behind the white reception desk made of synthetic materials. The atmosphere is unmistakably positive. Next to the desk, behind vertical laminated curtains, we enter the information room of this new police station. Is there a relationship between the ultramodern architecture and the innovatory activities of the people working there? Soft music (License to Kill) is playing in the background while I am listening to a non-stop explanation lasting two hours about the automation of the storage of suspect photographs and on the process of computer imaging.

We have an AT here with an optical WORM-disk, 1 giga-byte. WORM stands for: Write Once Read Many. Under the table is a videorecorder with two-inch floppy disks, which can hold fifty photographs. Eventually all photographs are stored digitally on the WORM-disk, which can hold 40,000 photographs. And this is a still-videocamera, with autofocus, which we use to photograph suspects from our old archives. I have adapted it myself, using cold halogen light because the original lamps caused heat distortion. Upstairs we hare another camera, used to photograph people when they are first brought in. The camera can also be taken to riots or accidents.
Enthusiasm makes him almost stumble over his words, and his eyes can scarcely conceal his pride. Six onths ago, senior police- officer Hans Bouma was still a police-motorcyclist, a man of the streets. Now he is a specialized computer programmer and has developed a system that is unique in the Netherlands. The Alkmaar police store data and photographs of suspects using a program called PicturePower, combined with dBase-III+ under MS- Dos and boosted with Clipper. A collection of all kinds of characteristics of suspects, which in the past had to be filled in on a National Report Form (Landelijk Meldings Formulier), are now entered in the PC by means of a very user-friendly dBase program. Hair colour, shape of the head, facial hair - we hop from screen to screen, each showing a complete list of options.
The computer sticks to the Privacy Requlations. M/F is an obligatory choice, and though sometimes doubt remains: 'it' or 'both' cannot be entered!
There are of course extensive search options. The command search Johnson* produces all people by the name of Johnson within a few seconds. More interesting is the search option which employs a combination of a maximum of ten different features. A special code connects the list of names that appears on the sereen to digitally stored photographs, which can be called up on the screen if required.
The innovation lies in the systematization of chaos. Shoe boxes full of photographs no longer litter the desks; everything is stored at one central point and can be retrieved an infinite number of times. Efficiency and overview are the magic words. In an adjacent room, the Mac-A-Mug produces composite sketches of suspects on a Macintosh computer, wholly independent of the database containing photographs and personal data. It is not, as I had expected, an ingenieus system capable of cutting up a videographed human head in small strips which are then combined to form new faces. Instead, it is a design program offering endless possibilities for composing sketches having the same effect as a coarse-grain photograph: they should be either looked at from a distance of several metres, or strongly reduced.

Witnesses are interviewed in this room, and we take our time, at least one hout. That is why a separate room is required, so that we are not disturbed. It is essential to focus exclusively on what the witness says, and not to give scope to one's own imagination. We continue until the witness is satisfied. If doubts remain, for instance with regard to the mouth, I take it out afterwards; we'll use a portrait without a mouth. The composition as a whole should bear the closest possible resemblance. In my opinion it is not enough when a witness says: 'He looks like the suspect', he must be the suspect.
A list of abbreviations at the bottom of the printed composite sketch shows in which order a certain mouth or nose have been selected. These codes are, however, not (yet) identical to the components of the search key of the database on the PC. A new selection must therefore be made, based on the composite sketch that has just been made. An egg-shaped head with blue eyes, small moustache and no chin, for example. A selection of photographs meeting these criteria follows. The witness is confronted with a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 20 pictures. Research has shown that a greater number of photographs only leads to confusion.
Experience shows that it is important to identify a number of basic features in the digital composite sketches, which may then lead to existing photographs of suspects. I am allowed a brief glimpse of the files containing 'hits', and immediately understand what Bouma means.


To see the similarities between the composite sketch and the photograph, a de-digitizing step is required. You have to look through half-closed eyelashes to obtain an overview of the drawing, which is made up of small squares of 1x1 mm.
Can this really represent a human head? Our brain is forced to switch between digital thinking and its own visual memory. For the database scarch, however, the total image must be subdivided into its separate parts, the features in the database so reminiscent of Bertillon.

Divine Hand

Evil must be categorized, criminals must be given a face. The computer provides every police-station with a divine hand, allowing them to create a human face. No longer dependent on the mysterieus men of the C.R.I. (Central Police Intelligence) from The Hague, carrying attach‚cases filled with jigsaw pieces: forehead, hair, moustache, beard. The composite photographic portrait with its confusing jigsaw effect will become a thing of the past. After years of research at the university of Aberdeen on ways of improving the English photokit, 49 pieces from the female kit where added to the 563 in the basic male kit, making it sufficientiy androgynous to produce faces of young men. At the very moment when the new training course was finished, the computer took over. A victory of technology and modern means of communication.
The photokit still produced clearly compound faces; confusion begins with computer imaging:
Who's that? they ask me, showing me a Mac-AMug head that has sprung from the imagination of senior police-officer Bouma. This person does not exist. Or perhaps it is the most notorious criminal in Alkmaar, or Mr. Bouma's window- cleaner. The person may also resemble someone Bouma has never seen before, someone who may be brought in this afternoon.

Borderlines between the real and the nonexistent are blurring. Images in our head, the product of observation and imagination, are digitized by a technological gimmick and begin to lead a life of their own. The next step is the composite sketch of the human profile. It is already technically possible to produce threedimensional representations of the site of the crime. Photographs can be provided with an adaptable background. Through digital recording of voice and sound, crime reconstruction may even deteriorate into a videoclip with moving images. The ontward appearance of the criminal is photographed by a videocamera (Police in Eindhoven want to use videocamerasfor street surveillance, Volkskrant July 22, 1989). lt is then compared with files of suspects, prisoners, people seeking asylum and extremists. Alternatively it can be composed from parts of those photographs.


In the police station of a provincial town, some 40,000 photographs are stored systematically. This number can be multiplied to arrive at the size of a national database. In Great Britain, for instance, photographs of all prisoners are entered into the computer. But: 'The same equipment is suitable for holding databases for any other images of interest to the police. Thousands or even millions of images can be held on a database, and the image records can be catalogued such that access to any image takes a few seconds only.' (Police Requirements Support Unit, June 1988)
The increased storage capacity bears no relation at all to the techniques used to unlock the archives, which by comparison are still in a Stone-Age phase.
The Chinese superimpose photographs of faces to detect identical points. The Germans have invented an automated version of skull measurement: using a pencil, several coordinates of the head are recorded on a graphics tablet; however, the search is limited to a database holding a maximum of 1,500 photographs.

Anxiety over mega-storage is difficult to reconcile with the disarming candour in Alkmaar. The fascination for the giga-disk makes moral objections vanish into thin air. At the same time, the Privacy Regulations that were so carefully drawn up and applied, already seem outdated in the light of the latest technological developments.
lt is also clear that there is no longer a place for the critical outsider at all. While the German Parliament is discussing new legislation allowing intelligence services free on-line access to all data of (semi-)public institutions, the Verfassungsschutz in the Federal Republic of Rhineland-Westphalia opened a discussion on the gigantic amounts of data which are now choking the computers. Updating superfluous data costs by far too much money and is not practicable. The Verfassungsschutz has eliminated thirty per cent of its own data and has now called upon all intelligence services to state how many people should be monitored. Embarrassment about gigantic numbers ought to have a purifying effect. In Bremen the computer holds some data of 20,000 people, of which only 1,000 are really important for purposes of investigation.
We now have come full circle: the authorities are imprisoned by their own system, lost among data. Desperately trying to stem the flood, they are drowned by a deluge they have conjured up themselves. Wonders will never cease: the ultimate revenge of the devil, evil turning against its guard? Enlist, get registered, and bring about a new revolt! Perhaps the latest version of United We Stand?


Reiss, R.A. c.s. Handleiding voor Het Signalement (le Portret Parl‚, Methode A. Bertillon) ten dienste van de politie, Haarlem 1911.
Smith, J.H., Het signaleren en opsporen van misdadigers, handleiding ten dienste van het onderwijs en de praktijk, Soekaboemi, 1927.
Various articles from police magazines, with regards to the Politie-bibliotheek of the Gemeentepolitie Amsterdam.