VIPER is an attention-grabbing name for a police identification parade application. Naturally it is an acronym - Video Identity Parade Electronically Recorded. Instead of roping in some poor unfortunates off the street for a police line-up or identity parade, and asking a witness to pick out the villain they saw, the witness looks at a series of video pictures.

What makes it interesting from the storage point of view is how the video images are stored, accessed and delivered. There is a VIPER centre where the images are stored and high-bandwidth links to individual police stations where the virtual identification parades are run.

Various police forces in the UK are using it. This in itself is a near-miracle considering the independence of regional police forces.

In the past, there had been a variety of video ID systems in place across the 43 UK police forces. Tony King, National Project manager VIPER, said: “The video images that were being used varied enormously in terms of quality and format. The strength of video ID parades rests on the quality, quantity and variety of images that can be drawn upon to create a suitable lineup. The requirement for a national database, something that could not be offered by the existing variety of systems, became very clear.”

The West Yorkshire Police force has outsourced the backup-up and disaster recovery management to Glasshouse Technologies. Glasshouse has also been tasked to build an IBM-based IT infrastructure for a national VIPER bureau.

The West Yorkshire Police system consists of 4TB of storage space built around industry-standard hardware configured as a Linux cluster, using IBM's General Parallel File System (GPFS) for access to individual image files. The Linux use fitted in with West Yorkshire Police's existing Linux infrastructure and helps to keep costs low.

VIPER uses a national database of images of volunteers to compile a video line-up, rather than using real people in a traditional live line-up. This will speed up the criminal justice process, as real life volunteers will not have to be found for each parade.

The process involves recording a short piece of video footage of a suspect, searching the VIPER database of over 10,000 video clips of volunteers, and selecting eight to ten additional images from the database for the ID parade. Details of these additional images, together with the initial footage of the suspect, are forwarded to the National VIPER Bureau, where imaging experts edit all the video clips into an electronic video ID parade. This is then sent back to the ID officer to present to the witness.

The West Yorkshire hardware involved includes two IBM TotalStorage FAStT700 Storage Servers, two IBM Storage Area Networks (SANs) and an IBM LTO Ultrium tape library. This is supported by Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) providing automated data management. IBM provided additional open-source and proprietary software.

For editing the video clips, 28 IBM IntelliStations were installed and integrated with Liquid silver non-linear editing machines and editing software from Pinnacle Systems. This is used by trained editors to construct broadcast quality video ID parades. With this complexity it's obvious why the West Yorkshire Police shied away from rolling its own hardware and software.

In the UK, a single identity (ID) parade can take six to ten weeks to set up. A video ID parade can be compiled within an hour, enabling the ID parade to be held while the witness still has a fresh recollection of the incident. The fast identification of suspects has been shown to increase conviction rates and to help reduce crime by repeat offenders. Furthermore, the cost of compiling such an ID parade is under £200, compared to the £600 – £1000 cost of a traditional lineup.

The benefits of the VIPER system thus include far easier and cheaper identification parade set up. Fewer are cancelled due to people not turning up and more are run. Police officers say the new hi-tech system removes the witness fear factor, as it has the potential to allow witnesses and victims to view suspects via a lap top, not only at a police office, but if necessary, from hospital or their own home.

Strathclyde Police has launched the first of its VIPER parade suites. Costing £200,000, the initiative will eventually be rolled out to every Division across the Force. Detective Superintendent John Hefron has been leading the Strathclyde VIPER effort. He said: "We cannot detect crime and bring people to justice without the crucial assistance of witnesses and victims. However, we realise that it can be distressing and traumatic for someone who has either been the victim of a crime or witnessed a crime to undergo the formal police identification procedures."

"The new VIPER system removes the confrontational aspect of traditional identification parades, where people are identified from behind a one way glass screen."

Lothian and Borders Police Assistant Chief Constable, Malcolm Dickson, representing the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, hailed the VIPER system as a major step forward for the criminal justice system in Scotland.

He said: "It ... means valuable police time and resources will be saved through this use of modern technology with officers not having to comb the streets for suitable line up suspects."

There are plans to link VIPER to fingerprint and iris recognition systems.