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The future of facial recognition: 7 fascinating facts

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What's on the screen in this photo? All the information that can be gleaned just from an image of someone's face. Alessandro Acquisti speaks at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

What’s on the screen in this photo? All the information that can be gleaned just from an image of someone’s face. Alessandro Acquisti speaks at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Alessandro Acquisti thinks we are about to have an Adam and Eve moment, where all of a sudden we realize that we aren’t wearing any clothes. Up until now, we have — for the most part — willingly offered up our personal information online without thinking too much about it. Alessandro Acquisti: What will a future without secrets look like? Alessandro Acquisti: What will a future without secrets look like? But as Acquisti puts it in today’s talk, “any personal information can become sensitive information.”

To illustrate what he means, he focuses our attention on facial recognition software and a study he conducted in 2010, when about 2.5 billion photos were uploaded to Facebook in a single month, many of them tagged. For the study, Acquisti and his fellow researchers snapped photos of students on a college campus and found that more than 30% of them were identifiable by off-the-shelf facial recognition software. From there, using data mining algorithms, the researchers were also able to identify the first five digits of many of these students’ Social Security numbers.

To hear about Acquisti’s latest research — which examines how employers judge the kind of information they find about potential employees online (hint: it’s not good) — watch this talk. Then below, take a closer look at the latest developments in facial recognition to see where this technology is headed.

  1. Identifiable online daters. An important part of online dating is, of course, anonymity. You make up a screen name because you want an element of surprise when you meet someone — and because you don’t want creepers showing up at your office uninvited. In 2010, Acquisti published the study, “Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality.” He and his fellow researchers analyzed 6,000 online profiles on a dating site in the same US city. Using four cloud computing cores and the facial recognition software PittPatt, they were able to identify 1 in 10 of these anonymous daters. And remember, this technology has improved three-fold since then.
  2. Better tools for law enforcement. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the Boston police commissioner said that facial recognition software had not helped them identify Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, despite the fact that the two were in public records databases—and photographed at the scene. Only, those images were taken from far away, the brothers were wearing sunglasses and caps, and many shots of them were in profile — all things that make facial recognition difficult. Experts say that technology can overcome these difficulties. In an interview with, Acquisti said that the increasing resolution of photos will help (hello, gigapixel!), as will the improved computational capabilities of computers and the ever-expanding mountain of data available from social networks. In a fascinating article via Yahoo, Paul Schuepp of the company Animetrics shares a more specific advance: software that turns 2D images into a simulated 3D model of a person’s face. In a single second, it can turn an unidentifiable partial snapshot into a very identifiable headshot. He claims the software can boost identification rates from 35 percent to 85 percent.
  3. Full body recognition? Allyson Rice of the University of Texas at Dallas has an idea for how facial recognition software could become even more accurate for law enforcement purposes — by becoming body recognition software. In a study published this month in Psychological Science, Rice and her fellow researchers asked college students to discern whether two photos — which had stumped facial recognition software — were indeed of the same person. They used eye-tracking equipment to discern how the participants were making the call. In the end, they found that students were far more accurate in their answers when the face and body of the subject was shown. And while participants reported judging based on facial features, their eyes were spending more time examining body build, stance, and other body features. “Psychologists and computer scientists have concentrated almost exclusively on the role of the face in person recognition,” Rice tells The Telegraph. “But our results show that the body can also provide important and useful identity information for person recognition.”
  4. A face scan for your phone. “Face Unlock” is a feature that allows you to unlock Android smartphones using your “faceprint,” i.e. a map of the unique structure of your face. This is just the beginning of face-as-security measure. In June, according to, Google patented a technology that would turn goofy facial expressions — a wink, a scrunched nose, a smile, a stuck-out tongue — into a code to unlock devices. The hope: that this would be harder to spoof than a faceprint. Turns out, apps such as FastAccess Anywhere, which uses your face as a password, can reportedly be fooled with a simple photo, says USA Today.
  5. Facial recognition as advertising. Could facial recognition technology be used to influence what we buy? Very likely. In 2012, an interactive ad for Choice for Girls was launched at bus stops in London. These billboards were able to scan passersby, judge their gender and show them appropriate content. Girls and women got a video, while boys and men got statistics on a subject. This ad was for a good cause, but this technology will no doubt expand — and could allow corporations and organizations to tap into our personal lives in unpredictable ways. Personalized ads as we walk down the street, a la the classic scene in Minority Report, yes. But as Acquisti notes in his talk, there’s a potentially more subtle application of this technology too: ads that can identify us and our two favorite friends on Facebook. From there, it’s a snap to create a composite image of a person who’ll star in an ad targeted just to us. For more in what’s coming in the facial recognition advertising realm, check out Leslie Stahl’s 60 Minutes segment “A Face in the Crowd: Say goodbye to anonymity.” Among other fascinating tidbits, it introduces us to FaceDeals — which notes when you’ve walked into an establishment, mines your Facebook likes and text messages a deal created just for you.
  6. Shattered Glass. As Acquisti notes in his talk, the fact that someone’s face can be used to find out private information is especially disconcerting given Google Glass’ emergence on the scene. In June, US lawmakers questioned Google about the privacy implications of the device and, in response, Google stressed that they “won’t be approving any facial recognition Glassware at this time.” But of course, it’s not completely up to them. In July, Stephen Balaban announced to NPR and the world that he had hacked Glass in order to give it facial recognition powers. “Essentially what I am building is an alternative operating system that runs on Glass but is not controlled by Google,” he said. On a similar note, one Michael DiGiovanni created a program called Winky for Glass that lets the wearer take a photo with a wink, rather than using the voice command.
  7. Your face as currency. In July, a Finnish company called Uniqul released a video of a project in the works, a pay-by-face authentication system. The idea? At a store, rather than paying with cash or a credit card, you give a “meaningful nod” to a scanner to make a purchase. A Huffington Post article describes this new tech, and also gives a peak at the Millennial ATM, which uses facial recognition as its primary security method.

Facial recognition is evolving rapidly. What here sounds cool and useful to you, and what sounds like a trip to Scarytown? For me, I may well be investing in these custom t-shirts, which claim to trip up facial recognition.