Demystifying Face Recognition Technology – What Makes It Good or Bad?

By Thomas Szoke and Mike Broggie

Every day, we move closer and closer to a seamless world, where the interactions we need – whether we’re entering a secure facility or preparing to board an international flight – can happen without us doing a thing. Both hardware (smart cameras and related platforms) and applications (face recognition algorithms) have evolved to the stage that real-time biometric identity measures can truly open doors to the right people at the right time.

Not surprisingly, many people are worried about the increasing use of their personal data to navigate the world without any friction. However, much of that concern comes from a lack of information.

Look at modern commercial identity practices (as distinct from law enforcement techniques), and you’ll quickly learn that in the majority of cases individuals have given consent for their facial images to be used to make daily practices in life so much easier. We’re talking about passport verification to pass quickly through border checkpoints, automatic log in at a desktop, even adjusting a thermostat to the desired setting when a designated individual enters the room.

Where things get problematic is when people who agree to share face images and personal data for specific purposes don’t believe that companies are doing their part to limit use only for what is authorized. Privacy breaches – even if they don’t involve facial images – only make those concerns worse.

The identity industry is rapidly evolving, which is creating a sense of chaos as people can’t and don’t completely understand what’s happening around them. Lawmakers, who are supposedly tasked with protecting consumers, are lagging way behind in their understanding of the impact of new technology – let alone in adopting sensible regulation – as rapid developments outpace our legislatures’ ability to respond to them. Our industry rightfully is the one that needs to lead the way in responsible practices – not abdicate that responsibility to others to do our jobs for us.

We need to advocate for the advances that come from integrating greater intelligence into our daily experiences. We need to consistently remind people that technology properly used and controlled is beneficial, as we permit and trust it to handle routine tasks. We also need to earn the public’s trust with responsible and transparent privacy practices. The ultimate upside is that we get to spend our time doing things that we value the most.

Understanding what face recognition is – and isn’t

Apple brought face recognition directly into consumers’ hands with the launch of its top-tier iPhone models, which leverage face ID to unlock devices so people can send emails, surf the web, and, yes, even make a phone call. Consumers who buy that iPhone opt in for face recognition to confirm who they are; they feel a sense of control in that authorized exchange of facial imaging for the smartphone convenience.

Stepping away from that one-on-one iPhone experience, people don’t readily transfer that understanding to what the face recognition industry does. Exactly as with that smartphone, we’ve developed applied solutions where face recognition is an identity tool, that – when properly deployed – leaves no gaps in security or risks of data being sold for the wrong use.

The connected world of IoT devices doesn’t use pictures because technology doesn’t need to know who you are. An access control door isn’t looking to recognize you by an image. Instead, it’s looking at 150 bytes of data broken down and recompiled into a template to match against authorized records. This is data that nobody can reassemble back into a face, more specifically, your face.

Opting in for face recognition

What differs today – and it’s a critical differentiator – is that face recognition offers a way for individuals to be identified and thereby benefit from countless applications. As consumers, individuals have the power, whether through mobile apps or web-based services, to decide where and when to present your facial identity for your benefit. Your image becomes a sort of digital passport.

Let’s look at what this means in today’s workforce. Many companies provide badges for employees to open locked doors; visitors must stop at registration desks in public and private buildings to sign in, show identity documents and more before they are welcomed inside.

In those cases, both the employee and the visitor can grant permission for the company to use face recognition technology to let them get to work easily and efficiently. Strategic programming upfront will maintain image data for a designated period. Workers are told that their images are removed on their last day at the company, while visitors might be told their image will expire within days after their scheduled appointment. Rules for the use of that face image are set and followed by the employer, building owner or manager and executed by their facial recognition technology provider or system.  

As partners in providing face-recognition platforms and applications, Ipsidy and Ayonix are working proactively to develop face recognition tools that allow companies to bring access management, marketing and other daily functions into the 21st century – smartly and securely. Our solutions are designed from day one to allow individuals to engage directly in face recognition controls and to understand how, when and why their image is being used. Those applications also have user-defined capabilities, meaning facial images are not maintained for or fed into larger applications.

These face recognition applications are designed to unlock benefits for those who choose to be a part of them. Perhaps you’re a regular visitor to your local shopping mall. Those who manage the mall and even owners in the individual stores know that keeping you engaged can deepen your loyalty. That’s where face recognition can work for you. As the mall or store can identify your return visit, you could receive discounts, free parking, exclusive products or more.

Those businesses know that that can create better relationships with customers, who in turn are sharing personal information because they get a benefit in return.  This ecosystem works, so long as there is transparency and trust that what is freely given by the customer, is only used for the limited purpose that was promised by the business.

What this means going forward

An image is just data. It isn’t a real live human. Modern systems also include “liveness” detection to ensure that it really is you who is trying to enter the premises or to validate your transaction in real time. It’s just a secure, accurate way to validate who you are when your identity matters.

Still, people have the right to be anonymous, which is at the heart of the public debate about privacy. Appropriate execution of face recognition is essential to ensuring that people know that those rights are being protected.

The bottom line is pretty straightforward: People want to know that when they have opted into face recognition, they’re in solely for the specified purpose, and thereby gain the rightful benefits. The flip side is equally critical, as they need to know that when they have opted out of a face recognition application, they – and their image – are out.

Companies that can demonstrate that capability are going to be very successful, as consumers will gravitate toward those businesses that protect individual privacy.

We are in a global network of information gathering and processing technology – and people should be able to decide whether (and how) to participate in that environment. Choice is the foundation of where we’re going: You can choose to continue on a path of friction, where you must identify yourself at every stopping point, or you can choose to be part of the new world.

Choice is the critical idea here, not the technology. And when you opt in, you rightly gain the benefits in that experience and should give up nothing more than you bargained for.

Thomas Szoke is Chief Technology Officer at Ipsidy, which provides secure, biometric identification, identity management and electronic transaction processing services.

Mike Broggie is Chief Executive Officer at Ayonix, the pioneering developer of one of the world’s leading 3D face recognition technology.

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