How does facial recognition work?
Facial recognition is a way of recognizing a human face through technology. A facial recognition system uses biometrics to map facial features from a photograph or video. It compares the information with a database of known faces to find a match. Facial recognition can help verify personal identity, but it also raises privacy issues.
The facial recognition market is expected to grow to $7.7 billion in 2022 from $4 billion in 2017. That’s because facial recognition has all kinds of commercial applications. It can be used for everything from surveillance to marketing.
But that’s where it gets complicated. If privacy is important to you, you probably want some control over how your personal information — your data — is used. And here’s the thing: your “faceprint” is data.
How facial recognition works
You might be good at recognizing faces. You probably find it a cinch to identify the face of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. You’re familiar with their facial features — their eyes, nose, mouth — and how they come together.
That’s how a facial recognition system works, but on a grand, algorithmic scale. Where you see a face, recognition technology sees data. That data can be stored and accessed. For instance, half of all American adults have their images stored in one or more facial-recognition databases that law enforcement agencies can search, according to a Georgetown University study.
So how does facial recognition work? Technologies vary, but here are the basic steps:
Step 1. A picture of your face is captured from a photo or video. Your face might appear alone or in a crowd. Your image may show you looking straight ahead or nearly in profile.
Step 2. Facial recognition software reads the geometry of your face. Key factors include the distance between your eyes and the distance from forehead to chin. The software identifies facial landmarks — one system identifies 68 of them — that are key to distinguishing your face. The result: your facial signature.
Step 3. Your facial signature — a mathematical formula — is compared to a database of known faces. And consider this: at least 117 million Americans have images of their faces in one or more police databases. According to a May 2018 report, the FBI has had access to 412 million facial images for searches.
Step 4. A determination is made. Your faceprint may match that of an image in a facial recognition system database.
In general, that’s how facial recognition works, but who uses it?
Who uses facial recognition?
A lot of people and organizations use facial recognition — and in a lot of different places. Here’s a sampling:
- U.S. government at airports. Facial recognition systems can monitor people coming and going in airports. The Department of Homeland Security has used the technology to identify people who have overstayed their visas or may be under criminal investigation. Customs officials at Washington Dulles International Airport made their first arrest using facial recognition in August 2018, catching an impostor trying to enter the country.
- Mobile phone makers in products. Apple first used facial recognition to unlock its iPhone X, and continues with the iPhone XS. Face ID authenticates — it makes sure you’re you when you access your phone. Apple says the chance of a random face unlocking your phone is about one in 1 million.
- Colleges in the classroom. Facial recognition software can, in essence, take roll. If you decide to cut class, your professor could know. Don’t even think of sending your brainy roommate to take your test.
- Social media companies on websites. Facebook uses an algorithm to spot faces when you upload a photo to its platform. The social media company asks if you want to tag people in your photos. If you say yes, it creates a link to their profiles. Facebook can recognize faces with 98 percent accuracy.
- Businesses at entrances and restricted areas. Some companies have traded in security badges for facial recognition systems. Beyond security, it could be one way to get some face time with the boss.
- Religious groups at places of worship. Churches have used facial recognition to scan their congregations to see who’s present. It’s a good way to track regulars and not-so-regulars, as well as to help tailor donation requests.
- Retailers in stores. Retailers can combine surveillance cameras and facial recognition to scan the faces of shoppers. One goal: identifying suspicious characters and potential shoplifters.
- Airlines at departure gates. You might be accustomed to having an agent scan your boarding pass at the gate to board your flight. At least one airline scans your face.
- Marketers and advertisers in campaigns. Marketers often consider things like gender, age, and ethnicity when targeting groups for a product or idea. Facial recognition can be used to define those audiences even at something like a concert.
Reasons to be concerned about your privacy
Privacy matters. Privacy refers to any rights you have to control your personal information and how it’s used — and that can include your faceprint.
So, what are the issues? Here are some:
- Security. Your facial data can be collected and stored, often without your permission. It’s possible hackers could access and steal that data.
- Prevalence. Facial recognition technology is becoming more widespread. That means your facial signature could end up in a lot of places. You probably won’t know who has access to it.
- Ownership. You own your face — the one atop your neck — but your digital images are different. You may have given up your right to ownership when you signed up on a social media network. Or maybe someone tracks down images of you online and sells that data.
- Safety. Facial recognition could lead to online harassment and stalking. How? For example, someone takes your picture on a subway or some other public place and uses facial recognition software to find out exactly who you are.
- Mistaken identity. Say, for instance, law enforcement uses facial recognition to try to identify someone who robbed a corner store. Facial recognition systems may not be 100 percent accurate. What if the police think the suspect is you?
- Basic freedoms. Government agencies and others could have the ability to track you. What you do and where you go might no longer be private. It could become impossible to remain anonymous.
How you can help protect yourself against facial recognition
Concerns about facial recognition could spur innovation.
Consider this: Two universities have developed anti-facial recognition glasses to make wearers undetectable.
The glasses — the work of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — could be one way to help protect yourself. Keep in mind, though, cyber security company Symantec has funded related research at Carnegie Mellon to help prevent such evasive maneuvers.
Beyond that, you may not have a lot of options. Still, there are things you can do.
You might start with your social networks. Here are a couple examples:
- Facebook allows you to opt out of its facial recognition system.
- Google+ won’t enable facial recognition until you opt in. The system also allows you to turn face recognition on and off.
It’s smart in general to be careful about what you share on social networks. Posting too much personal information, including photos, could lead to identity theft. For instance, you might share your dog’s name or your high school mascot. Those details might give an identity thief a clue to the answers to your security questions for your bank or credit card accounts.
It’s also a good idea to consider the so-called Internet of Things — those devices in your home that connect to the internet. IoT devices that use face recognition include iPads, Xboxes, and video systems.
One possible solution? A secure router can help safeguard your network and your connected devices, which in turn could help protect your facial image.
How can you find more protection against facial recognition systems?
Will hackers really want to steal your face? If your facial data can be used to commit fraud or turn a profit, the answer is yes. Add that to the list of cyber safety risks.
A holistic cyber safety package is worth considering for help protecting your online privacy and security. For instance, Norton Security is designed to help protect your computer, laptop, and mobile devices against viruses, ransomware, and cybercriminals.
Still, facial recognition represents a challenge to your privacy. After all, there are few rules governing its use.
In the meantime, maybe those anti-facial-recognition glasses won’t look so bad.
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