Facial Recognition: Good or Bad?

William Elcock

As facial recognition becomes more commonplace, it's necessary to consider if this technology violates the privacy of tech consumers.

Facial Recognition Main

Facial recognition in most cases is well-intended and is meant to make life easier.

However, the nature of this technology could possibly pose a threat to the anonymity of those using it. 

Uses of the technology such as China's proposed facial recognition database which is intended to be able to identify any of the country's 1.3 billion citizens in 3 seconds or less have definitely raised some privacy concerns.

How Facial Recognition Works

One of the biggest selling points of the facial recognition technology is that it works at a distance. This negates the need for the direct contact necessary with any security system such as the fingerprint scanner.

Facial recognition systems work by creating a blueprint of sorts of a face. This is done by taking an image with a camera and then measuring distances on a face, known as nodal points, including between eyes and the width of noses.

Facial Recognition Nodal Points
Nodal Points Example | Wikimedia Commons/Abyssus

This image can then be used as a reference. This allows for these systems to be utilized for authentication purposes. If a person's face is captured and it matches with a reference registered in a facial recognition system, access is granted.

Many facial recognition systems create 2D images during the recognition process. The iPhone X however creates 3D models of a face. This allows for a more detailed image and decreases the chance of the system being fooled.

How Facial Recognition is Improving Our Lives

I'm not seeking to bash facial recognition in any way and recognize its value. This is just an examination of both sides of the coin. A good place to start is with the positives.

Crime Fighting

Facial recognition technology is being used by some police forces in order to assist with law enforcement.

For instance, officers in Ireland intend to use the technology to help identify potential suspects in crowded areas. Officers in New York used the technology to arrest an arson suspect.

Chinese Police Facial Recognition System
Chinese police facial recognition system | South China Morning Post

In addition, Chinese police officers at the Zhengzhou East high-speed rail station in the capital of Henan province are using the technology to help identify possible suspects. Their system makes use of a portable device connected to a camera, which is mounted on a pair of sunglasses.

Gambling Problem Assistance

Roulette

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation of Ontario Canada, is making use of facial recognition technology to help persons with gambling addiction to stay off their casinos.

This process relies on a system where problem gamblers voluntarily sign up to be placed on a banned list. If they subsequently enter a casino, they can be recognized by the system.

If this happens, security personnel then verify that it is indeed a person on the banned list. The offender is then removed from the premises and the offense recorded. Consequences such as a trespassing charge can be imposed.

Flight Check-in System

Last year, Baidu introduced a facial recognition system at Beijing's main airport, which allows for the verification of airline ground crew and staff. Flight admission capability is expected to be added this year.

Airport Check In

An airport in the Henan provincial city of Nanyang is also using a similar system. However, their system is already working for passengers. A facial scan is carried out and used to verify their identities before boarding.

Face to Pay

Smile To Pay Demonstration
Smile to pay demonstration | South China Morning Post

A "smile to pay" system was recently introduced at KFC by Ant Financial in Hangzhou, China.

Ant Finacial operates Alipay, an electronic payment system that powers Alibaba's Taobao and Tmall ecommerce websites.

This application allows the customers using Alipay to enable a "Smile to Pay" application, which scans their faces. This facilitates quick and seamless payment and checkout.

The Downsides of Facial Recognition

Facial recognition has many positive uses that generally improve life by providing a convenient and quick way to make payments. However, facial recognition isn't without challenges.

Error Rate

Although facial recognition can have an error rate around 0.8% or lower, this is still a cause for concern, especially in the cases of law enforcement and financial application.

Facial Recognition Mistake

Imagine the ramifications of arresting the wrong person based on erroneous facial recognition or a person committing identity theft by taking advantage of this shortcoming.

For this reason, facial recognition should not be used without alternative means of verification being present.

Increased Personalized Ad Targeting

By now, you'd probably be familiar with targeted advertising. You know how it goes when you visit Amazon and Google somehow knows.

Targeted Ads

Well, the brick-and-mortar stores are using facial recognition technology to gather data about the habits of customers. While this type of usage is still in the early stages, retailers will undoubtedly seek to implement facial recognition in their business strategy.

After building up a profile on users, the data collected could also be used to create targeted ads. This could mean a double barrage of targeted ads from both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers.

Lack of Anonymity

With the prospect of data being constantly collected by facial recognition systems, there is this looming concern that, at some point in the future, you may not be able to go to many places without being tracked online.

Watching You

Living in such a world would be quite restrictive.

It's Good and Bad

There are clearly many beneficial uses of facial recognition technology and its use should not be dismissed due to the privacy concerns. However, great care must be taken to ensure that the data collected is not mishandled.

Steps must be taken to ensure that facial recognition data is only accessible to parties who have permission. Apple seems to be doing a good job in this area with the iPhone X's system. Facial recognition collected on Apple's flagship phone is only stored locally, is encrypted, and is deleted after a day in most cases.

Targeted ads due to facial recognition data is a touchy area since retailers will relentlessly pursue this in order to improve their profit margin. However, consumers should at least be given the option to opt out of being targeted by such ads.

To sum up, I think facial recognition should definitely be embraced but we should all be very aware of the possible dangers that surround its use.

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William Elcock

Written By

William Elcock

William has been helping friends troubleshoot tech problems for several years and thus made the natural progression into tech blogging. In addition to consumer electronics William also has a vested interest in various renewable energy topics.