The world of technology moves at a remarkable rate. Facial recognition technology is something that was seen as the stuff of movies only a decade or so ago and now it’s beginning to be widely used in real life and by ordinary people.


What is facial recognition technology?

In basic terms, facial recognition is a computer application which can identify an individual from a photograph or video still by comparing various facial features and matching it to an image in a database of faces. It is often used a security measure and is similar to other biometric methods like iris recognition or fingerprinting in that no two faces are identical and can be used within reasonable doubt to identify one solitary individual. It now has commercial uses too, siuch as in marketing.


How it works

Like many computer programmes, facial recognition uses algorithms in order to be effective. Analysis of facial features such as jaw, cheekbones and eyes and nose and measuring the angles of them, the size and the distance between them and then comparing these results with pre-existing images within a database will determine the identity of a person.

There are two methods of face recognition, geometric and photometric. Geometric looks at a person’s recognisable features and photometric is a more statistical approach. There is now also a method of producing a 3D composite which enables angles of the face to be gauged from many different angles and gains more data from which to compare. By combining all of these techniques, modern facial recognition systems are second to none when it comes to accuracy.


Users of facial recognition technology

There are many notable cases where huge databases of photographs have been held and facial recognition technology is then used to identify individuals. New Zealand citizens’ passports use this system. In various states in America law enforcement agencies have a database of criminal mugshots which has been used to identify individuals who have later committed crimes. Indeed there are reportedly some 117 million Americans in total, both criminals and law abiding citizens, in a Department of State database which the FBI can use.

These are some of the notable uses and there are also some airports which use facial recognition to keep tabs on passengers who may be up to no good.

Is it a bit intrusive?

There is the old saying that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to worry about and that may apply here too. Unfortunately there is now a significant number of criminals in the world and the rest of us have been put in the goldfish bowl with them. In the interests of our security it is something we have to accept. The good news is that facial recognition is pretty close to 100% accurate for identifying individuals and the more people who are caught committing crime by this technology will hopefully serve as a deterrent to others who might also break the law.


Facial recognition technology on smartphones

This is becoming more prevalent with modern devices. Use your phone to take a photo of yourself and with the help of an app you can use it to keep others out of your phone. Phones use facial recognition technology to ensure only the nominated user can gain access to the device.

There are a number of apps which use the technology too, including one which will determine the mental mood of a person by analysing facial characteristics. This might not have any real practical use, but it shows how the technology can also be adapted or other purposes, in this case entertainment.


How effective is it?

Despite claims that it is early 100% effective there aren’t the necessary figures to back this up. Test groups have not been of a size large enough to successfully substantiate these claims. Data has been extrapolated from a smaller number, although it has proven to be effective in catching several criminals.

In some cities where facial recognition systems are in place, such as London, the expenditure on the project has attracted criticism due to allegedly never once successfully being used to capture a criminal.

There are many factors which can throw a spanner in the works too. People wearing hats, scarves or make up can influence the values the software calculates, as can having a beard or moustache.

If a facial recognition programme turns up more than one potential match then a human must make the final decision, meaning there is then a greater margin for error.

Studies have however proven that facial recognition is by far a better method than iris recognition or voice recognition when it comes to positively identifying people.


Advantages of facial recognition

The main advantage of facial recognition technology is it requires no cooperation by the suspect – a person’s eyes are always the same distance apart and cheekbones cannot be moved, so the key characteristics of a face will always remain the same.

As mentioned above it is the best biometric method of identification by far.


Disadvantages of facial recognition

Some systems struggle to find a match if facial expressions are changed or if the person wears a hat or glasses.

Privacy is the main reason it has drawn criticism, but as was previously discussed facial recognition technology is usually being used for our own safety any way.

There is also the worry that any facial recognition data could be used to track a person’s entire online history and even end up in the hands of marketing companies or worse, criminals, who could use it in some way to fraudulent use another person’s identity. There was an incident with a Russian app where women were identified using facial recognition technology and then harassed, so it does need to be policed.


So while facial recognition technology may not be at its peak jut yet, it is constantly being developed. Businesses have plans to use it more, including banks who have an idea to use facial recognition at ATMs instead of a PIN. It’s still a relatively young technology, but it will definitely improve with time.


How good is facial recognition technology?