Facial Recognition Technology

Post-9/11, many airports and a few cities rushed to install cameras hooked to facial recognition technology, a futuristic apparatus that promised to pick out terrorists and criminals from milling crowds by matching their faces to biometric data in large databases.

Many programs were abandoned a few years later, when it became clear they accomplished little beyond creeping people out. Boston’s Logan Airport scrapped face recognition surveillance after two separate tests showed only a 61.4 percent success rate. When the city of Tampa tried to keep tabs on revelers in the city’s night-club district, the sophisticated technology was bested by people wearing masks and flicking off the cameras.

Human ingenuity aside, most facial recognition software could also be foiled by eyewear, a bad angle or somebody making a weird face. But nothing drives innovation like the promise of government contracts! In the past few years, face recognition technology has advanced substantially, moving from 2-d to 3-d scanning that can capture identifying information about faces even in profile. Another great leap forward, courtesy of Identex (now L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc.), combines geometric face scanning and “skinprint” technology that maps pores, skin texture, scars and other identifying facial marks captured in high-resolution photos.

In the fall, police officers from 40 departments will hit the streets armed with the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS) device. The gadget, which attaches to an iPhone, can take an iris scan from 6 inches away, a measure of a person’s face from 5 feet away, or electronic fingerprints, according to Computer vision central. This biometric information can be matched to any database of pictures, including, potentially, one of the largest collections of tagged photos in existence: Facebook. The process is almost instant, so no time for a suspect to opt out of supplying law enforcement with a record of their biometric data

In a June “Fox and Friends” segment on the MORIS device, Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona explained his enthusiasm for the new technology. “In Arizona, the illegal immigration issue — we have people from foreign countries, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them that deliberately have very good documents that are fake, fraudulent, and we need to find out who they are, not only for the safety of my deputies but for the protection of our citizens all across America.”

It’s important to note that the military has used similar technology in Afghanistan and Iraq for years. One of 20 people in Afghanistan is registered in biometric databases (one of six men of fighting age), according to recent reporting by the New York Times. It’s one in 14 in Iraq (and one in four men of fighting age).

The technology is also being put to use in the aftermath of the London riots, both by law enforcement and an online group assembled to hunt down people involved in the riots by using social networking sites. (London is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world.)

Slightly fewer than half of the DMVs in the US have the capacity to run your picture through biometric databases. Ostensibly, these searches are intended to catch people trying to collect multiple IDs from different states. Fair enough. But as EFF’s Lee Tien told AlterNet, the DMV can also log into and run a person’s face against any government database, including ones that hold criminal records. Last August, former New York Gov. David Paterson and DMV commissioner David Swartz held a triumphant news conference where they announced that more than 100 felony arrests were made through the DMV’s facial recognition program.

When the California DMV tried to acquire facial recognition technology in 2009, privacy and consumer advocates fought the agency on the grounds that such a massive shift in private data handling required public debate (the DMV had been trying to stealthily strike a deal with the vendor). As SecurityInfoWatch reported at the time, privacy advocates argued that there was no way to ensure the technology would not also be used to track and monitor anyone:

“…. the five-year contract, which is being fast-tracked and could be approved as early as next month, is drawing objections from privacy advocates who fear state and local authorities could use the biometric technology to monitor the movements of ‘innocent people’ — for instance, spectators at a sporting event or an anti-war rally.

‘We see this as sort of creeping Big Brother government, an invasion of people’s privacy,’ said Richard Holober, executive director of the San Mateo-based Consumer Federation of California.”

If facial recognition technology in the hands of the DMV sounds like the makings of someone’s mistaken-identity, Kaftaesque nightmare, it is. The unlucky John H. Gass of Massachusetts had to spend 10 days proving to the Massachusetts DMV that he had not committed ID fraud after facial recognition technology mistakenly flagged his photo because he resembled another man.

For years Las Vegas casinos have used various forms of facial recognition to identify card-counters. Now, Vegas is at the forefront of efforts to adapt facial recognition to more efficiently suck money out of visitors.

The LA Times reported last week that the Venetian hotel and casino has installed basic facial recognition software in advertisements. A camera captures an image of a person passing by and an algorithm determines their gender and rough age. The advertisement can then present them with products most likely to appeal to their demographic.

Targeted ads are the holy grail of marketing. If you’re an advertiser, you don’t want to waste the priceless real-estate of a teen boy’s brain with an ad for, say, tampons, so advertisers are constantly trying to figure out new ways to deliver the right ads to the right people. Thanks to tools that let companies track web surfing history and the detailed personal information featured on certain giant social networking sites, the digital world provides the best venue for targeted ads.

LA Times reporters Shan Li and David Sarno also got Kraft and Adidas to go on the record about their future plans to install the technology in ads and store kiosks:

“If a retailer can offer the right products quickly, people are more likely to buy something,” said Chris Aubrey, vice president of global retail marketing for Adidas.

Kraft said it’s in talks with a supermarket chain, which it would not identify, to test face-scanning kiosks.

“If it recognizes that there is a female between 25 to 29 standing there, it may surmise that you are more likely to have minor children at home and give suggestions on how to spice up Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for the kids,” said Donald King, the company’s vice president of retail experience.

Japan is way ahead of the curve. So here are some things we may be looking forward to:

a) Vending machines: Japanese vending machines suggest soft drinks based on stereotypes based on your gender and age (and the weather).

b) Billboards: Japanese billboards contain technology that figures out a person’s sex and age to within 10 years, and presents them with the appropriate advertising.

c) Truck stops: A truck stop uses facial recognition to gauge the alertness of drivers.

d) Hotels and restaurants: NTDtv reports Omron, a Japanese technology company, equips hotels and restaurants with the technology to let them flag VIP guests.

e) Service work: According to Reuters, Omron also uses a “smile-scan” allowing service companies to ensure their employees evince the appropriate levels of enthusiasm on the job.

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