Nanny State

Facial Recognition Technology Will Make You Hard To Miss


Just in case you thought the best way to avoid having your movements automatically tracked by robo-cameras snapping your license plate as you speed on by was to get out and walk, now comes word that long-over-promised facial recognition technology is getting … well … more promising. The U.S. Senate is holding hearings on the growing ability of software to recognize people from images of their faces, and a French firm is boasting of an impressive accuracy rate in a field test at a large soccer stadium.

Modern American politics being what they are, it should be no surprise that hearings inquiring into facial recognition technology, hosted by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, and emceed by his takes-himself-too-seriously-ship, Al Franken, focus on headline-grabber Facebook. The high-flying tech company with the notoriously clueless approach to public relations stepped into the spotlight when it implemented newly purchased technology to scan customers' uploaded photos to find friend recommendations, and immediately creeped out much of the world.

Reports The Hill:

Facebook will be under the microscope on Wednesday at a Senate hearing focused on the privacy implications of facial recognition technology.

Rob Sherman, manager of privacy and public policy at Facebook, will represent the social networking site at the hearing of a Senate Judiciary Committee subpanel, an aide confirmed to The Hill.

Last month, Facebook acquired, an Israeli start-up that develops facial recognition technology. The networking site has used's software to suggest friends to tag in the photos that users upload to the site.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of the Senate Privacy subcommittee, has voiced concern about Facebook not including sufficient privacy protections in the tagging feature. In comments to the Department of Commerce, Franken has written that Facebook likely holds the largest privately held collection of face prints in the world.

Largest privately held collection? Quite possibly. But who is it that holds all those passport snapshots, drivers license photos, mugshots, etc.? That's right, and the FBI and the National Sheriffs Association will also be making appearances. That's timely, because the FBI has already implemented a facial recognition test project s part of its Next Generation Identification program. Last October, NextGov reported:

The FBI by mid-January will activate a nationwide facial recognition service in select states that will allow local police to identify unknown subjects in photos, bureau officials told Nextgov.

The federal government is embarking on a multiyear, $1 billion dollar overhaul of the FBI's existing fingerprint database to more quickly and accurately identify suspects, partly through applying other biometric markers, such as iris scans and voice recordings.

Often law enforcement authorities will "have a photo of a person and for whatever reason they just don't know who it is [but they know] this is clearly the missing link to our case," said Nick Megna, a unit chief at the FBI's criminal justice information services division. The new facial recognition service can help provide that missing link by retrieving a list of mug shots ranked in order of similarity to the features of the subject in the photo.

Right now, the FBI is drawing from a database of booking photos provided by law-enforcement agencies, and "[t]he bureau expects its collection of shots to rival its repository of 70 million fingerprints once more officers are aware of the facial search's capabilities."

Some states, such as Minnesota, are already digging through their drivers license photos with facial recognition software, looking for duplicates. Hmmm … If those databases were merged …

The real license-plate-recognition-complementing potential of facial recognition software will come when the technology can be successfully implemented through surveillance cameras, so all of those scanned photos can be checked against people walking within range of any given lens. And, with all due allowances for corporate boasting, that day is getting closer. A French startup called Vesalis, which apparently originally had its eye on helping the beauty industry market its products, found a new audience for its goods: governments. Reports IEEE Spectrum:

This fast image recognition from low-quality video, in turns out, is just what security companies dream of, to compare people against a database of known "people of concern." The French government invested €2 million in the company in 2009, and this past October, Vesalis tested its technology during a soccer game at the Parc des Princes, the largest soccer stadium in France. The system checked 20 000 people every 20 minutes against a database of 500 problem individuals and had an accuracy rate of 98 percent; competitive technology, said Michael Vannier, Vice President of U.S. Sales, has had an accuracy rate of 61 percent in similar tests. The company expects its technology, in the future, to be used in counterterrorism, border control, ATM access, and a variety of security applications. And, Robin hopes, at a few makeup counters.

So if you want to travel anonymously in the future, you may have to add a hat and fake moustache to that bogus license plate you planned to buy.