There’s something inherently appealing about Facial Recognition as a biometric. It’s the one humans typically use to identify each other, so there’s a strong convenience factor. There’s a long-standing tradition of registering the face as a biometric (think drivers licences and mugshots).

 

Faces are also tied more closely to identity than say a hand or an eye. A retinal pattern may be unique, but it doesn’t speak to who we are and how we see ourselves in the same way a face can.

 

Newer facial recognition technology uses 3D scanners to register an image, making it viable under diverse lighting conditions and from various angles. Images work best if registered under ideal conditions initially. For secure systems a liveness test might also require subtle movements in the face like blinking. Though the technology is advancing quickly, facial recognition is still significantly behind the competition in terms of accuracy. It has the highest false acceptance rate (FAR) of any of the options we’ll be covering here, at 1.3%, and also the highest false rejection rate (FRR) at 2.3%. Liveness tests typically increase the FRR beyond that baseline.


Upsides

Facial recognition is familiar, acceptable, even broadly appealing on its surface. With a large enough scanner and good lighting conditions during registration, the high-end options provide significant security, especially in conjunction with other forms of verification. Algorithms which allow computers to recognise and compare faces are already widely used by government institutions like the US Department of State and by tech companies like Google. Google can even recognise your dog, not just as a dog but as your dog, Sir William Paws Fluffington III.


Downsides and Controversy

2D facial images are significantly easier to spoof, but as we’ve seen with the iPhone X, even the new 3D scanners are far from immune. However, we can reasonable expect that technology to improve significantly in the near future, and for the cost to come down proportionately. By far the most damning critiques of facial recognition technology center not around security but possible infringements on privacy and consent.  Certain information can be inferred from facial scans which people may be less than fully comfortable sharing without explicit consent. A recent Stanford University study found that a deep neural network could learn to accurately detect sexual orientation from 2D facial images. The computer program was 91% accurate for men and 83% accurate for women, given five images. The authors of the study saw a “threat to the privacy and safety of gay men and women” exposed by their findings.  A 2016 study found that a deep neural network could learn to identify individuals with criminal records with 89.5% accuracy given only facial images. The face can also potentially reveal certain medical information we may not be comfortable casually associating with identity, such as certain neurological or chromosomal diseases. With so much camera technology already in place around the world, critics fear facial information could be too easily accessible without an individual’s consent. Some companies have been unwilling to invest in a technology they think will eventually become unacceptable and/or illegal.


In the Market

China-based e-commerce giant Alibaba recently rolled out their Smile-to-Pay terminals in Hangzhou KFCs, allowing customers to pay with a smile (poetic, cute, if maybe a little Orwellian). The iPhone X’s facial authentication has proved relatively resilient despite a barrage of youtubers testing it underwater, in drag makeup, zombified, while wearing groucho glasses, etc. The Xbox has a facial recognition add-on. 90% of Chinese top 200 internet companies use Megvii’s FaceID tech, according to Technolgyreview.com.  The Beijing subways system uses it to authenticate ticket holders, and British Airways has installed three facial recognition terminals in Heathrow Airport to try to reduce wait times and congestion. In the near future we can expect facial recognition technology to make significant strides and probably to stay popular, but concerns about privacy and consent should only continue to increase as well.

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