Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 8:13AM
Most people think face recognition is great when it's catching baddies and weird or invasive when it's tracking innocent people. The technology has sparked debate after debate over whether privacy or security is more important. Honestly? I think we can have both.
First off, people need to understand what facial recognition can and can't do. This ABC story about a face rec system analyzing someone's face and telling a clerk that they're underage is bogus. If the kid had been in the store previously and been busted for buying liquor then yes, the system could alert the clerk, but no one is suggesting that face rec can tell the difference between 17 and 18 any more than a human can.
One thing face rec can do, which hasn't gotten a ton of press, is include simple privacy measures. We have been working on this at 3VR and I wrote recently about a team in Canada that's working on a similar project. Basically, software engineers can write a password-protected program that blurs faces and when an incident occurs, an investigator can unblur faces in particular pieces of video. This way, while people may still feel uncomfortable about being on camera, at least they will not really be watched unless they happen to be present during a robbery or some other incident, in which case they'll typically be glad the cameras were there to help catch the bad guys. Also, because this type of application can also have auditing capabilities written into it, it provides a crucial and often overlooked capability: a way to "watch the watchers," if you will.
The same could feasibly work in the grocery store situation described in the ABC story - if someone was a match with a suspect in the database, then the system could alert the clerk. For everyone else, faces could be blurred, and if someone is caught buying liquor or cigarettes underage, then the store manager could unblur the face and save it to the suspect list.
There has also been a lot of press recently about the rise of surveillance that risks privacy without actually improving security. I agree. Thing is, the bulk of new cameras installed are meant to catch traffic violators and raise money for municipal governments, not improve security. These cameras misfire fairly often, sometimes costing a city more than they're worth, and invading citizens' privacy for no good reason.
During the bombings in London, however, investigators were able to use video footage to find their suspect. If they had had face recognition and video search capabilities, that investigation would have been far shorter. And as banks have begun installing surveillance systems, they have seen a marked increase in the number of fraud cases they're able to solve.
Surveillance clearly has a place in modern society, but I do think that the industry needs to continue to work towards securing both people and their privacy.