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Facial recognition: A two-sided story

Alejandra Rodriguez


August 21st, 2019

What does it mean for today’s world when there are widespread systems of biometric authentication that can recognize people’s faces? From Snapchat filters to security protocols for transactions, facial recognition is for many people, already part of their daily lives. This technology is changing various industries from retail to healthcare. However, like any disruptive technology, it also poses a series of challenges. Let’s examine the implications of adopting this technology.

The technology: Opportunities and challenges

Face or Facial Recognition is software that uses biometrics to identify people’s faces by analyzing their unique physical features. It works with images or videos, searching for nodal points and landmarks of the human face. It maps the distance between key features such as the nose, mouth, jaw, and eyes. This information is then converted into a mathematical formula that is compared to a databank to find a match.

In order to improve accuracy, some systems have applied HOG (Histogram of oriented gradients). This system aims to improve identification processes by analyzing every pixel of an image and how it behaves in relation to other pixels surrounding it. As a result, the system can figure out the direction of light. This direction is represented with an arrow which is called a gradient. Without gradients, it would be very difficult for the system to analyze two completely different pictures of the same person (in terms of light) and conclude that it’s in fact, the same person. If you want to explore in detail how this process works, check out this article from Medium.

While facial recognition is effective in many cases, the technology is still maturing. What makes the debate around it so interesting, is that when it is accurate, it creates controversy because people are concerned about who might have access to their data. And in the cases where it doesn’t work, people are concerned about what this lack of accuracy means, and whether it can lead to discrimination or wrongful identification. Let’s take a look at these challenges.

Recognizable faces: an advantage or disadvantage for security?

Facial recognition is improving security protocols, surveillance, and law enforcement. There are already systems installed in public places which are helpful to find missing people or identify a suspect in a crowd. There was a case in the US in which facial recognition allowed the police to retain and identify a suspect of a shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, that did not want to cooperate. The police said it would have been difficult to identify him without the use of biometric authentication.

However, opinions regarding surveillance systems are divided. Statistics show that 45% of people in the US believe the government should not limit the use of facial recognition vs 24% who think the contrary. Also, when asked if the government should strictly limit the use of surveillance cameras, 36% of respondents agreed and 29% disagreed.

Also, increasingly airports will implement the “Biometric Exit”, which is a form of biometric authentication for travelers – enabling people to board a plane just using facial recognition. On the one hand, the system saves time, eliminating the need to review paper travel documents manually. It provides a more comfortable experience for passengers, promising to dramatically improve the service and the speed of boarding a plane, plus it reinforces security protocols. According to a survey from the Center of Data Innovation, 54% of respondents agreed that airports should be free to use facial recognition for safety screenings.

However, as we mentioned before, this technology still presents error rates, and people’s faces can be wrongfully identified, which delays processes at airports instead of making them more effective. Users are concerned about the exposure of their personal data as it can be used for other purposes. According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) they are allowed to keep photos of US citizens for 12 hours and photos of noncitizens for 14 days. Airlines are required to delete traveler’s pictures from their system; however, they can store pictures taken with other cameras, which can be used to identify people and use their information for commercial purposes.

As a result of this situation, recently US Senators Brian Shatz and Roy Blunt introduced the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act which prevents companies from using facial recognition data without the explicit consent of consumers. “Our faces are our identities. They’re personal. So the responsibility is on companies to ask people for their permission before they track and analyze their faces” said Senator Shatz. The bill is a reminder that we need to use technology responsibly, to avoid practices that could be harmful for users.

Looking at the bright side: how facial recognition is changing various industries

Technology is always a means, not an end, which is why the benefits that it brings depend to a great extent on why and how we use it. Regardless of the debate around facial recognition, we can already see use cases where it’s helping to improve people’s quality of life.

In the healthcare industry it has the potential to significantly improve the experience of patients. It’s making registration and identification processes easier and faster, avoiding the duplication of medical records and enabling doctors to provide better care and ensure the safety of patients. Belatrix’s XD (Experience Design) Center of Excellence recently worked on a project with a multinational provider of technology services and network solutions in order to find out how technology and facial recognition could improve the experience of patients on hospitals in San Francisco.

Another industry where facial recognition promises to create a big impact is retail. The technology can revolutionize the way people purchase a product or a service. Although there is a big debate about how companies use customer data for commercial purposes, facial recognition, when done right, can be the holy grail of omnichannel experiences. This video from Nucleus Vision shows how facial recognition enables companies to know in advance the preferences of their customers to offer them exactly what they need.

This speeds up the purchase process and builds a more enjoyable experience. Other uses of facial recognition in retail are being implemented by Walmart, which is working on a system to analyze the facial expressions of customers to measure how satisfied they are and what areas of the store interests them the most.

Banking is also implementing this “customer-first” approach. When customers think about loan applications, bank transactions, and bill payments, they think about effectiveness and security. Facial recognition is eliminating the need to wait in long lines and remember a PIN. In fact, CaixaBank, a Spanish bank has installed facial recognition systems in 20 ATMs in Barcelona. The system can recognize 16 definable points in the users’ face, which ensures a correct identification process.

Likewise, the Japanese bank, Seven Bank is aiming to install facial recognition on ATMs not only for cash withdrawal but also for opening a 7-Eleven bank account. The system works by scanning people’s ID photo and then comparing it with their faces. This avoids the hassle of traditional processes for opening an account which usually requires filling forms or waiting long periods of time.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about its use: Get the most out of it

While facial recognition might be controversial, every major disruptive technology throughout history has caused shock, awe and debate. Today, for biometric authentication this seems to be inevitable. Facial and voice recognition and fingerprint detection are changing how we manage our bank accounts, purchase products and interact with people. Forward-thinking companies should focus on its potential to improve people’s quality of life in different domains while harnessing the advantages that it presents for businesses.

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