Out in the Open

Once he sees your face, this 'super-recognizer' will never forget it

Kenny Long has the innate ability to see a face once, and then recognize it again later. He tells Piya how he discovered he had this power when he was working as an officer for London's Metropolitan Police Service, which has since created a whole unit of "super-recognisers" to help tackle crime.

Kenny Long has the innate ability to see a face once, and then recognize it again later

Kenny Long is a former member of a super-recognizers unit at the London Metropolitan Police Service. (Super Recognisers International)
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This story was originally published on January 4, 2019.

Kenny Long was on patrol with the London Metropolitan Police when he learned that he had a superpower.

He was driving when a car was about to pass by him, coming the other way. He caught a glance of the driver's face in the brief moment when they were side-by-side.

"I thought straightaway, yeah, that's the guy. He's wanted for several burglaries," Long recounted to Out in the Open host, Piya Chattopadhyay.

It's not their fault. The difference is, I'm a super-recognizer.- Kenny Long

At the time, Long wasn't even looking for the suspect, who was assumed to be out of the country. He'd only seen the man's face previously in a briefing slide. But Long pulled the car over anyway.

Fingerprints back at the station later confirmed that he was right. It turns out that the man had been pulled over before, but used a false identity to evade capture. Long's sharp memory had allowed him to succeed where other officers had failed.

"It's not their fault," he said of his colleagues. "The difference is, I'm a super-recognizer."

'That's just not how memory works'

According to American psychology professor Richard Russell, a super-recognizer is someone who is much better than average at recognizing faces. 

"In our work, we have set a threshold of being in roughly the top 2 per cent of the population, as measured by multiple tests," said Russell, who's been studying face recognition for the last decade. "But other people have used different thresholds, and there is not currently a shared definition."

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But other researchers have reason to be wary of so-called super-recognition.

According to the Innocence Project, misidentifications by eyewitnesses have been involved in about 70 per cent of convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States.

In April 2017, psychologist Julia Shaw explained on CBC Radio's The Current that memory is much more fallible than people tend to believe.

"I mean, you're implying that people can remember an enormous amount of detail about something that happened sometimes in seconds, sometimes in a minute," she said of criminal investigations. "That's just not how memory works."

'It's the way forward'

But Russell's research in this area has helped spearhead policing in the United Kingdom. He believes that super-recogonizers could also be used in other facets of security or intelligence services.

"I'm not aware of any legal system that takes into account the fact that people vary widely in how good they are at recognizing faces," he said.

Kenny Long works for a private consulting firm in London, England. (Submitted by Kenny Long)

When Long discovered he was uniquely skilled at recognizing faces, he was put through a series of testing on his own memory. One involved matching the faces of middle-aged people with their childhood photos. In another, Long successfully identified a lineup of people wearing balaclavas.

He was eventually invited to join a super-recognizer unit within the London Metropolitan Police. His work included linking suspects to surveillance footage and locating missing people.

Long has since left the force for private consulting. Even with the development of facial recognition software, he believes human verification will remain invaluable.

"With social media only getting bigger as well, with everyone posting pictures, it's the way forward."


This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "If Memory Serves".

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