Elgan on Tech

3 reasons you can’t fight facial recognition

The biometric backlash is but a brief blip. Resistance is futile. You WILL be identified. But is that good or bad?

facial recognition - biometric security identification

Elgan on Tech

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Back in the day -- by which I mean a period starting with the emergence of homo sapiens around 500,000 years ago until the day before yesterday -- it was possible for humans to walk around in society completely unrecognized and without any record of them having been there.

At some point in the future, it will be impossible to drive, shop, walk, go to work or function without being recognized by machines that will permanently record the fact of your presence in that place at that time.

Right now, we're in transition between the world of anonymous living and the always-recognized future.

Is the future a biometric convenience and security utopia? Or Orwellian nightmare. The answer is: Yes.

The biometric backlash

A movement opposing face recognition technology deployed by cities, universities and others is spreading, as the public begins to grapple with emerging biometric technology for identifying people.

Biometric technologies have been emerging for decades, with fingerprints, iris scanning and other technologies becoming more reliable.

Face-recognition is seen by the anti-biometric public because the "biometric data" -- i.e., a picture of your face -- can be "collected" at a great distance by an ordinary camera. And it can be "captured" with a camera -- or even from pictures posted online.

Another trend driving the infrastructure for municipal and police face recognition is the so-called "smart city" movement. The cornerstone of the trend is the installation in each city of "smart street lights," which contain connected cameras and other sensors ideal for total biometric surveillance. Regardless of face recognition bans, these fixtures are capable of putting a face-recognizing, licence-plate-reading, always listening devices every 100 yards on every street in a city.

Resisting biometrics is rational. It's also futile, and for three reasons.

1. The imperfection of face recognition is temporary

Campaigners are forcing state and local police departments to ban face recognition technology. Laws against the technology are spreading. And the number-one reason for these bans is that current technology tends to be less accurate when recognizing women and minorities.

But within a few years, face recognition technology will be essentially perfected, and everybody will be recognized faithfully by the technology. Will these same campaigners then welcome police use of face recognition? I doubt it.

2. The primacy of face recognition is temporary

As face recognition gets perfected, it will also be augmented by even more effective technologies. The weakness of face recognition is that.... it requires a face. How can you recognize someone from the back, or someone wearing Groucho glasses?

The solution to this problem is a wide range of alternative biometrics that, thanks to the rise of AI, are enabling people to be recognized by all kinds of body parts.

One is gait recognition. The way a person lumbers along while walking is as individual as fingerprints, and AI can recognize how someone walks.

Gait can be detected now not only by cameras, but also using thermal imaging. Best of all, thermal imaging technology can recognize individuals by both gait and face recognition -- whatever body parts are available. Intel technology recently demonstrated 99.5 accuracy in thermal imaging technology. One way to use thermal imaging is to recognize the pattern of blood vessels beneath the surface of the skin, which are so unique that even identical twins have completely different patterns.

The Pentagon is throwing a lot of money at thermal-recognition technologies. Their requirements say that recognition needs to happen in conditions where visible-light cameras struggle -- through windshields, through fog and in the face of strong backlight. And the technology needs to work as far away as 500 meters.

We all know how this works. The Pentagon invests heavily in advanced technology, yada, yada, yada, consumers are buying that technology at BestBuy ten years later.

In the future, you'll be able to be positively ID'd while wearing Groucho glasses in a dark alley on a foggy night from 500 meters away.

Most emerging biometric technologies are pretty gross. Other emerging biometric technologies include ear-canal recognition that will ID you when you insert earbuds. The shape of the external ear is also unique and identifying. Researchers are also improving methods for identifying people using vein patters in the palm or back of the hand or on fingertips, skin patterns generally, body odor -- you name it. And, of course, there's DNA matching, in which skin flakes, hair, blood or just about any tiny chunk of a person and process it for a perfect match. (The ramifications of DNA matching were brilliantly explored in the 1997 movie, Gattaca.)

While activists worry about police departments and large organizations using biometric identification, the reality is that billions of biometric-enabled consumer electronics gadgets are now being sold. Most smartphones now have fingerprint readers, face recognition or both. Home security cameras are increasingly outfitted with face recognition. And this includes doorbell cameras pointed at the street. Cars, laptops, smart glasses, smart watches and TV sets will all get biometric identification sensors, too.

The full range of AI-enabled biometric technologies, techniques and products means you'll be identifiable up close, far away, in the dark, while you're driving and while you're not driving. Your face, voice, ears, walk, vascular system and DNA will all give you away.

3. The public resistance to biometrics is also temporary

Opposition to biometric identification depends on how you ask the question.

If you ask: "Do you want to live in a world where you are recognized all the time, everywhere?," people will say they hate it.

If you ask: "Do you want to never wait in line or type your credit card information again, for more criminals to be caught, for enterprise networks to be secure," they will say they love it.

The biggest benefit is convenience. Good biometrics means shopping without lines, according to Amazon's Go concept. Amazon, which owns Whole Foods Market, is aggressively pursuing stores where you walk it, grab whatever you want and walk out. Biometrics recognizes you, other sensors recognize what you take, and your credit card is automatically charged.

The biometric future means no more swiping your badge to get into the office or even unlock the door, no more carrying a wallet, no more entering passwords, no more airport security or boarding lines.

Beyond incredible convenience, biometric ID promises more public safety, safer cars, better healthcare, and enhanced national security.

It also could go a long way to helping the good guys in two conundrums facing enterprise security managers. The first is the arms race between cybercriminals and cybersecurity. And the other is the contest between security and productivity or usability.

Stated another way, as cyber-intruders grow more sophisticated in their methods, enterprise security specialists have to resort to more extreme measures, which creates problems and obstacles for workers.

The combination of AI threat detection, plus AI-driven biometrics, could help secure enterprise resources without overburdening employees. We're entering the age of identity-defined and identity-centric security in large organizations.

The benefits of biometrics are winning the argument. An IBM survey found acceptance growing, with 67 percent of survey respondents "comfortable" with using biometrics -- a whopping 75 percent of millennials also "comfortable."

You can see this growing acceptance in the consumer acceptance of biometrics to secure payments. Juniper Research predicts that biometrics will provide the security for $2.5 trillion in mobile payments over the next four years.

People want both convenience and security, and so biometrics will win the argument.

How to think about the future of biometric security

Biometrics will solve a huge number of problems and make the world a better place.

Biometrics will make the world more like an Orwellian nightmare of total surveillance, where we're all tracked and identified everywhere we go.

Both are true. Biometrics are both good and bad.

But here's what matters: Ubiquitous biometrics are inevitable. And this is true not because technology advances on its own regardless of what the public thinks. It's true because the public will overwhelmingly want biometrics.

So biometrics are taking over. And, as with so many previous technologies that are both good and bad, we'll muddle along with legal battles, hack attacks on biometric databases and personal struggles as we weigh the costs against the benefits.

But don't be deluded. We're entering the era of universal biometrics. Resistance is futile. You WILL be identified.