back to article No hiding place - facial biometrics will ID you, RSN

One of the technologies that has been on a steadily accelerating price/performance curve is face recognition technology. A series of talks this year demonstrated just how quickly the software is improving. Every year there’s an event in London called Biometrics. It’s a conference all about the state of biometric technology and …


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  1. Pete 2 Silver badge


    This tech may well work *against* ordinary people who are either not aware, or don't care about it. However, just as people didn't used to lock their doors until the threat of unwelcome visitors became widespread (or at least became widely reported) - we can expect that once these activities become too intrusive the population will push back. Whether that entails us starting to wear large, floppy hats, dark glasses and/or false beards (until they all become criminal offenses), or something else.

    Presumably at some point an escalation will start with ever more sophisticated probing into our lives, followed by greater reluctance to show our true selves in public. Maybe it'll become a new selling point for pubs, clubs and other meeting places: No Cameras!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      thank F

      that my preffered club of choice already strictly enforce such a rule since years.

      "Maybe it'll become a new selling point for pubs, clubs and other meeting places: No Cameras!"

      1. Graham Marsden

        @thank F

        Unfortunately whilst certain events and clubs do have a "No Cameras" policy, that doesn't mean there's no CCTV outside the venue or someone sneaking in a hidden camera...

  2. The BigYin

    You can't identify a face...

    ...if you can't see a face. I'm buying shares in mask makers....

  3. Anon the mouse

    Deadbeat dads, really??

    "the DWP will be able to look for deadbeat dads"

    The CSA stats show that Non resident Mums are more likely not to pay than Non-Resident Dads. Surely then you should change it to Deadbeat Mums, or even better.... Non paying Parents.

    Last time I checked I was the single parent and my childs Mum hadn't paid a thing.... the deadbeat.

    1. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Deadbeat dads, really??

      That's bad, but it doesn't mean deadbeat dads don't exist.

      1. Wommit

        Re : Sarah Bee

        No it doesn't.

        However by only saying "Deadbeat dad's" you reinforce the inmage that women are all wonderfuland perfect and men need to be coralled and imprisoned at any and every possible occasion because they're men. And men deserve it.

        How about trying to get out of you sexist attitude?

        1. thecakeis(not)alie


          Hear, hear! Deadbeat Moms are (as a % of the individuals on the hook for such payments by gender) far more common in my province than deadbeat dads. Yet our government still focuses entirely on non-paying fathers and ignores the problem of non-paying mothers entirely.

          The issue of course is that our laws are so unbelievably unbalanced here that the Fathers almost never get custody. (Women are “far more important to a child’s development.”) This is of course despite that fact that in many cases the fathers in question are good individuals who care a great deal about their children and have the means to support them. The mother can be (and sadly too often is in cases that end up going to court) strung out on drugs, irresponsible and unable to properly care for the children. She’ll still get custody in an unfortunate number of cases.

          So the total number of women here asked to pay child support is vanishingly small. Sadly, those that are on the hook for it are pretty negligent about paying. So there are a higher % of “deadbeat moms” amidst the pool of mothers asked to pay support. That said, given the vastly wider pool of fathers asked to pay support even the significantly lower % of “deadbeat dads” amongst them makes for a higher number of bodies who are unable or unwilling to provide upkeep.

          The whole thing is a complicated web of social injustices on a lot of sides; neither gender is perfect…but in my humble opinion neither gender is “more important” to a child’s development either. While right now today there are more “deadbeat dads” in my jurisdiction than “deadbeat moms,” this is a symptom of a larger injustice.

          Thusly I agree without wholeheartedly; we need to be referring to these issues using non-gender-specific terms. Only once we can defeat gender barriers such as those that automatically assume the mother is more fit to raise a child than the father will we be approaching a truly equitable society.

          It is well past time that the pendulum of equality swung the other direction. It is time to address the injustices that exist in how we treat men in our society with just as much vigour and passion as we approach the injustices that exist as regards women. A truly equitable society would not look at any of these issues with any gender bias whatsoever.

          Most importantly, a truly equitable society wouldn’t be spending provincial tax dollars to push out advertisements on television, radio and the internet specifically focused at “deadbeat dads.” It’s demeaning, it’s backwards and it’s unconscionable to use public money to perpetuate gender sterotypes of any type. Especially when they are flat out wrong.

  4. crowley
    Big Brother


    "So write to your MP immediately..."

    Why? So they can deny observance to others whilst retaining it themselves?

    Any virtual-space counter-surveillance tech worth using will be grass roots based.

    Good article though, and in a strange way I'm looking forward to seeing how 'society's (or is that kleptocracy's?) nervous system' in meat-space works out. The possibilities for tyranny are unnerving, but I do wonder to what degree such technologies will also empower cooperatives with more noble goals.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Our work cut out for us

    This does make very, very clear that we need privacy, and lots of it, to have any security left. Or, for that matter, liberty. And yes, outside of the virtual world too, but we may have an easier time starting in that virtual world first.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nose recognition.

    I saw something about nose recognition a while ago. Yes really. The argument being that it's quite easy to mess with your facial features and fool face recognition technology. Facial hair and glasses and such are pretty good at screwing with this tech. However in all this the one thing that usually remains uncovered is the nose.

    One problem with all this recognition tech is, however, that in order to do it's job it won't need a database of a million faces, it will need to be much, much bigger and the bigger the database the slower the tech becomes. Fine, I suppose, if you're doing checks at something like a check in desk - "Just look into this camera please sir". However to be of any use it will have to work in real time on faces in crowds, plugged into a CCTV system.

    The biggest single problem is, however, that while changing your face is pretty easy covering is even easier.

    1. Mitch Kent

      I genuinely never thought there would be a use for this...

      ...but I can flare my nostrils by quite a margin. Worst party trick suddenly greatest hope for privacy of mankind?

    2. The BigYin

      You don't need many photos

      If you have too many, the false-positive rate will drive you nuts. You only need photos of "people of interest". Of course, your local council will then apply these laws to god-fouling etc.

      In certain, very restricted, areas I can see the use of this tech. Prisons, military facilities, maybe even parts of hospitals. But in general-public CCTV, Flickr, Facebook etc? Fuck right off. (Sorry Sarah).

      Will there now have to be a new social etiquette over when photos can be posted? I am not even on FB and my ugly mug is up there, fortunately most people are considerate enough to ask me before risking other people's monitors.

      1. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

        Re: You don't need many photos

        Why are you apologising to me for saying 'fuck', dear?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: You don't need many photos

        "If you have too many, the false-positive rate will drive you nuts. You only need photos of "people of interest"."

        Fraid you also need photographs of people you're not interested in. It's no like you are looking for a solid match like, for example, a vehicle registration mark. You are looking for a close match. So one face may be a close match for an interesting face, but it may be a closer match for one or more uninteresting faces. Without the uninteresting faces on the database this would chuck an alert, with the uninteresting faces you have something to compare against and make a judgement call.

        Indeed for this sort of system to work correctly you need more than one picture of every person on the database, indeed you need as many pictures as possible to improve the success rate and reduce the false match rate.

        Imagine if ANPR had to deal with images of registration marks with digits missing. If you only get a part registration it could match a number of registration numbers in the database. Now imagine that the DVLA database it was querying also only held numbers with digits missing. Obviously the more different images the database held the more chance that you could build a full registration mark for a given car, but that would still leave you with only a partial image from the camera in the first place. Not an ideal analogy, but it's getting there.

  7. frank ly

    Layered Search

    "In a database of a million people, if you are searching for me you will get back hundreds, if not thousands of false matches."

    Yes, but those thousands can then be passed over to an algorithm that is slower but more accurate, with fewer false positives. In cases where it is important/vital to identify a face, you could pass the final 50 (say) results to an experienced human analyst. It depends on the purpose, the perceived urgency and the budget.

    1. FoolD

      False negatives ?

      It would seem the ratio of false positives to false negatives is rather important here.

      A layered search would help quickly filter out the false positives .. but what about the false negatives ? If the algorithm has already (incorrectly) discarded the correct match you will waste quite a lot of time filtering down to zero.

      Then you would then have to start again using your slower, more accurate algorithms on the complete dataset...

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        True negatives ?

        Or, alternatively, just accept the fact that I am not Mr. Bin Laden, and nor is the person sitting next to me.

        It seems that half of the recognition technology exists to draw matches for little reason I can see other than, um, drawing matches. The rest seems to be to look for technical verification of results already determined for whatever purpose. Don't take my word for it, ask the airport scanners how many terrorist attacks were foiled by what around here is known as the "perv scanner". Ask Mr. De Menezes.

        If we're going to start developing systems to recognise and itemise people from video footage from numerous sources, it might be good to start with a clear understanding of why exactly this is being performed. To catch criminals (in lieu of good old-fashioned detective work) or to go all Orwellian on us? The reasons bother me more than the technology.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Lab Specimens

    The figures you cite are for passport-style controlled-environment photos only - i.e. mouth closed, facing the camera, controlled lighting. As soon as you move away from a controlled environment, the hit rate reduces dramatically.

    So people - just wear sunglasses. If the software can't find your pupils, it generally can't find you.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    Nice to see a Tommy shirt for a change - the world has too many Marky T-shirts for my liking.

  10. James Micallef Silver badge

    Gait analysis....

    ----> Silly Walks

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters


    shall I order a silicone mask like the ones offered by spfx yet, or wait a bit?

    1. thecakeis(not)alie


      Everyone buy a Dick Cheney mask. Given what the dark lord can get away with, you are garunteed to be impervious to ANYTHING whilst wearing it.

  12. D Moss Esq

    What is Mr Birch talking about?

    The NIST figures are questionable. In fact, until you see a large-scale field trial delivering the accuracy claimed by the technology salesmen at the Biometrics 2010 exhibition, the best way to avoid disappointment is to assume that the NIST figures are complete poppycock,

    What would be the point of virtual privacy if real privacy is impossible?

    Presumably Mr Birch is not trying to promote technology that doesn't work in practice and he is not trying to promote privacy that doesn't even work in theory. So what is he trying to do?

    He is trying to get his readers to write to their MPs and demand that public money -- your money and mine -- be spent on PETs.


    Cui bono?

    What's in it for us? Or for Mr Birch?

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I imagine that the technology will be at 'hollywood' levels faster than we think. One day soon you'll be able to point your phone at a stranger and instantly id them, google them, plus whatever Facebook lets you do at that time. The anti-privacy culture of the Internet will spill over into the real world.

    If you're on the Tube reading this on your phone, don't just stand there, walk up to me and tell me I was right.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not that shit again!

      "One day soon you'll be able to point your phone at a stranger and instantly id them, google them"

      Where do people get the idea that that googling people will get you anything? I quick poll round the office shows that Googling will not find a single person in here by name. Even if you add lots of other known information you won't find me. And that's dealing with somebody who has been on the internet forever and worked in IT for 25 years. Odds of finding the next person you pass in the street?

      Next you'll be telling me that Google's geolocation service works anwhere outside a major population centre.

  14. Blofeld's Cat Silver badge

    Have they considered....

    ... your average face-painted football crowd?

    And that's before we get to the Burka.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No Rights

    How long before its illegal to enter a public building wearing anything that covers your face?

    10 years imprisonment for earing a baseball cap, but muderers and rapists can walk free in 2.

    Some Tw t makes millions and everyone's rights are sold.

    Just look at the scanner makers!

    Ars hole government havent got the balls to say No!

    1. hplasm

      10 years is too little!

      Last time someone eared my baseball cap I had to chuck it away. Bloody ear marks won't come.out....

      Anyway, for an interesting take on the loss of privacy due to technosnoopery , take a look at ' The Light of Other Days' by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

  16. JaitcH

    The Chinese have deployed it in BeiJing and also at busy transportation termini

    The Chinese obviously have some confidence in it as it has been running since before the Olympics.

    Those well groomed young men and women, in Chinese 'hotspots', touting oversized, large screened 2-way radio's are internal security folks. A sister of one of these people said if they are looking for someone in, say, a station they can have the persons picture loaded in to the system and every sighting in the given vicinity is transmitted back to the hand-helds.

    I guess the US will equip drones with this stuff, then give them a list of undesirables, then set them loose.

    1. Tempest

      In use at border crossing points, too!

      I crossed from Laos to China last year and imagine my surprise when my name was called out before I had even crossed the white line in front of the immigration control desk.

      The officious looking guy was actually quite chatty and he revealed they were trying to improve their service by greeting people personally. He showed me my mug shot on their screen alongside their reference visa photo.

      Turns out that the visa photo you supply (all nicely trimmed with a special device they supply) are fed into their face recognition system so upon arrival they are able to greet you!

  17. breakfast
    Black Helicopters


    I can see a "resistance chic" look coming in a few years down the line, stuff that hides you from biometrics, at first preferred by people who want to look ( or be ) dodgy and later passing into widespread use because it's edgy and everyone's a little uneasy about where all this stuff is leading...

  18. Steven Jones

    Picasa and face recognition

    "It's not perfect, but it’s pretty good."

    At least so far as Picasa is concerned, not it's not "pretty good". I've got well over 50,000 photos which Picasa catalogs, and the face recognition is risible. The vast majority of matches are false positives. The feature is now turned off.

    It's notable that Lightroom, which is my preferred way of handling photos, does not have such a feature, useful as it would be if there was a workable solution. Maybe one day.

    1. Tempest

      @ Picasa and face recognition. A poor workman ...

      I take hundreds of photographs each week during my business travels.

      Contrary to your findings, Picasa works well at pairing things human and otherwise using different camera's yet!

  19. Alan Firminger

    They are succeeding with the low hanging fruit

    From experience I believe that the whole UK population contains many pairs of people who look so like each other that the range of variation in each is greater than the difference between the pair. Performance cannot improve indefinitely.

  20. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Down

    You have no control over what pictures of you other people post on the Internet.

    And you certainly have no control over someone photoshopping your face onto someone else's body...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      True enough.

      "And you certainly have no control over someone photoshopping your face onto someone else's body..."

      That's true enough, but what makes it worse is the way the data will be collected, In order to populate the database properly they will need as many photographs as they can lay hands on of each person. A simple passport stylephotograph won't suffice when you consider the face in a crowd scenario, the odds of getting a face on picture will be pretty slim* So they will need pictures from as many angles as possible, and each of these pictures will need to be confirmed manually as being the correct person. Building this database will be a huge task.

      Ever noticed how many missing persons photos turn out to be useless. How often have you seen an image of a missing person or wanted person on the news where the same picture is used over and over again for days or weeks? Then either the person is found or another image is published and suddenly you seem to be looking at a different person. That's proof that a single image of a person is pretty useless. People who use the face recognition in the likes of Picasa will know that when they first start using it you have to train it, a lot. What makes it even worse is when you do have two people who look very similar. I know two sisters (not twins) that Picasa can't cope with at all. And who knows what it would make of Rob Brydon, Ben Miller and Anton Du Beke? ;)

      * Escpecially since anybody who is trying to avoid detection will not be caught looking up at a CCTV camera.

  21. thecakeis(not)alie

    It's only creepy the first few times.

    Ever since the scientology protests here, going through a drive-thru with your Guy Fawkes mask on doesn't remotely get a reaction. It was all fun and games the first time: 12 cars all crammed full of folks in masks. Shocked looks and stares and good fun had by all. Now it’s been done so much that you can just get away with it and not feel like some sort of weird outcast.

    This brings me to the “masks as a form of personal privacy” idea. I don’t think it’s as bizarre as a lot of people at first make it out to be. It’s weird when one person does it. Slightly less weird if a cloud of people do it. When you’ve seen a dozen or so different folks do it on different days it simply fades into the background. Our world is so full of the weird and the different that most people just don’t have time to worry about why that group of dorks is wearing masks.

    Now admittedly I am certain that if you walked into a NIMBY’s business in a mask they would freak out and think you were trying to rob them. That will change; eventually people will be walking down the street with them on, going through drive thrus on a regular basis…it will become normal.

    For examples, look at BDSM or LGBT in certain western countries. Largely accepted without an eyeblink where I live. Persecuted with extreme prejudice in other places…but the kinds of people who persecute folks based on such anachronistic and archaic value judgements are themselves slowly becoming the ones that are persecuted. Where I live demeaning someone for as stupid a reason such as sexual preference would be instant social ostracisation.

    Sadly, this isn’t true all over; bigotry reigns supreme in many communities. It is thus that I believe the acceptance of things such as masks will rapidly be accepted. Bigoted people themselves often have secrets to hide; they will want to preserve their hidden desires, affiliations and affairs just as strongly as they wish to persecute others.

    It will be interesting to watch.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    latest facebook app?

    Did anyone else immediately thin of FB search would be a great use for this? upload a photo, click on the face and viola; a set of members you may want to link with.

    Grenade, because this idea is bound to explode in someones face one day.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Illuminated hats

    Remember the illuminated halo those kids wore a while back that made their face invisible to the cameras by overloading the them using Ir LEDs operating just below visible light? Guess we'll need to start wearing hats with the brim brightly illuminated just below the visible spectrum pointing outward so our heads appear as a glowing ball when viewed by cameras.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Why would this cause a problem? Some of my cameras have infrared blocking filters, not to prevent this sort of thing but because the sensors will record near IR and so without the filter the image may be "contaminated" by IR and the coloration may be a little off. I have other cameras with little or no IR filtering, indeed I sometimes use these with IR pass filters to produce "creative" images.

      The point is that near infrared is present all the time. a camera that blocks IR above say 720nm will not be fooled if you increase the levels, since it blocks almost all of it. A camera that allows it will not be particularly fooled either. Sure it may mess up the coloration, I doubt this tech is particularly bothered by coloration in the first place otherwise you'd be able to fool it with a fake tan or makeup.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Burkas all round

    Far from being opressive the burka may be the only outfit giving you freedom.

    Maybe that is why the French are really banning them. Can you get one lined with tinfoil?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @ burkas

      I wouldn't be surprised; it's already illegal here to cover a part of your face at a protest, which includes scarves on cold winter days.

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