Surveillance Through Facial Recognition (Part 1)

12/8/2012 9:19:17 AM

Are we living in Orwell's 1984, where computers can suddenly recognise faces? Experts reveal how developed the technology already is and what you should be prepared for

There was a great commotion online when Facebook released its automatic facial recognition feature in the summer of 2011. The social network could suddenly recognise faces in uploaded images and tag them automatically. Users would help the algorithm by tagging names they wanted to connect to faces, creating a giant database. Privacy, data protection and civil rights campaigners became frantic. They saw the new feature not only as a blatant violation of privacy, but a step in the direction of more pervasive surveillance. With over 900 million active users, Facebook is the largest face card index on the planet, and thus a goldmine for data hunters, whatever their purpose. The feature eventually became optional but were all these fears really justified?

Discussions about Facebook's new function made one thing clear: there is a need for further understanding. What are the risks involved in facial recognition, and what are the opportunities? How do facial recognition systems work, what can they already do, and how can one protect oneself from them?

Description: Discussions about Facebook's new function made one thing clear: there is a need for further understanding

Discussions about Facebook's new function made one thing clear: there is a need for further understanding

Heinrich Ihmor, a biometry expert at the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), can answer these questions. It is his task to assess the efficacy of biometric systems, including facial recognition systems for border control and fighting against crime, in his day to day job. At present, he finds the high-tech security gate EasyPass, which the BSI is testing along with the federal police at Frankfurt airport, very fascinating. EasyPass can independently conduct ID checks on passengers, find persons wanted by the police, and compare photos using facial recognition technology. It works well so long as travelers aren't returning from vacations with wide, beaming smiles. "This can be thoroughly detrimental to the biometric process", says Ihmor. If EasyPass sounds an alarm, officers intervene and that puts a sudden end to the person's holiday joy.

The new screening method is essential

Ihmor does not, however, question the necessity of biometric detection. Finding the best method of detection is of the utmost importance to him. "No biometric method is perfect," he says, "they only vary in their quality." According to him, facial detection technology has huge advantages when compared to other biometric methods. About two percent of the population does not have unique fingerprints. DNA tests give outstanding results but they are expensive, time consuming and legally disputed. Palm prints are too unclear and iris scanners are very difficult to manage when used on a large scale. Therefore, for Ihmor, there is no mistaking that we ought to get used to the new scanning technology.

"Facial recognition is becoming increasingly popular", he explains. "It has made enormous progress in the last five years." Since this technology can be used on a large scale in a faster and safer manner, it will replace the biometric processes practiced at present as soon as a few more technical hurdles are overcome.

Description: "Facial recognition is becoming increasingly popular",

"Facial recognition is becoming increasingly popular"

Thanks to powerful high-resolution cameras and smart software, faces can be recognised with great accuracy even from large distances, in poor light conditions, and when they are partially covered and distorted. The police and military benefit from this. Large areas and crowds can be monitored with a well-positioned camera, and the systems can differentiate between known friends and enemies. In some cases, automatic systems can open doors or even deny someone access to a computer terminal, for example.

The list of fields of application is growing longer. For a long time now, the American military has been using drones as people-hunters: thanks to facial recognition technology, they trace targets in no-man's-land even from great heights without these people noticing anything. At the next football world cup, the Brazilian police force intends to equip officers with special goggles with integrated cameras which can flag notorious hooligans and make them stand out more in their fields of vision.

Apparently these goggles can process 400 faces per second and compare them with a comprehensive database that can contain up to 13 million faces. Local transportation services in Rotterdam intend to use facial recognition technology to implement bans on people entering public vehicles; a guard can automatically be called if a known troublemaker enters a bus or train.

New algorithms can not only compare faces but also analyze them. What is the mood of the person, where is he/ she looking, how old would the person be? This is the kind of information that even those in the advertising industry are desperate to get their hands on. It can help in analysing the influx of visitors in a supermarket or shopping disctricts, and display ads on intelligent billboards that are tailor-made to the gender and age of passers-by.

Will face scanners replace door locks?

So far, facial recognition technology has been most widely used in the entertainment industry. Image programs such as iPhoto and Picasa can sort large photo collections on the basis of faces. Portable cameras can snap photos when all the people in the frame are smiling, and smartphone apps help in recognising faces of people we might have met long ago. Gaming consoles detect players by face and the technology is replacing the password input in an increasing number of protected areas, right from websites to door locks.

Description: Will face scanners replace door locks?

Will face scanners replace door locks?

Yet, such popular examples paint an inaccurate picture of the current applications of facial recognition technology. BSI expert Heinrich Ihmor points out: "If I know all about the limits of biometrics, I tend to overrate its results." For Ihmor, facial recognition technology is basically "a wonderful tool for providing technical and hassle-free support to those who are involved with detection."

This is why one must not rule out human beings as a source of errors. "Biometrics depends on enrollment and the learning procedure," explains Ihmor. "This is time consuming and requires a lot of work." Therefore, he will not trade the lock on his house door for a face scanner - and because he doesn't want to be locked out of home, for example after coming back from a vacation.

The German Federal Criminal Police Office must have understood that facial recognition technology still needs improvement, when it tested three camera systems for monitoring the entry area of the Mainz Central Station between October 2006 and January 2007. The 23,000 daily visitors also included 200 pre-selected test subjects. The result was sobering: even under ideal conditions, the systems caught only 60 percent of the times they passed by. The recognition rate fell to between 10 and 20 percent in poor light conditions. There were 23 false alarms every day, on average. This was especially annoying for security personnel as well as those disturbed by the alarms. The final report stated that using the system in open air is currently "not promising" for manhunts. Despite many discussions, there is still no method devised to identify hooligans in football stadiums, a potentially useful application.

On the other hand, the suggestions of BKA experts to increase the recognition rate by 'conscious or unconscious cooperative behavior of the wanted person" seem to be curious: a moving screen next to the camera coaxes the wanted persons to raise their heads - a trick, for which hardly any real criminal or terrorist would fall.

Despite the setback, the automatic facial recognition technology has been playing an important role in the daily routine of the German investigator for a long time. "Basically, the facial recognition technology has become an indispensable method of person identification," a BKA speaker explained to us. As a matter of routine, officers compare the photos of the offenders with the portraits saved in the central information system of the police (Inpol) according to the information provided by BKA, the system contains 3.3 million photos of persons "who have been subjected to the recognition service" persons. However, even here the photos cannot be compared without human help. The decision is to whether a hit is the same as the wanted person, is always taken by the experts. The computer only presents a list of photos sorted on the basis of similarity.

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