Understanding Facial Recognition

Learn more about facial recognition technology and how it is used in everyday life in this free lesson.

Understanding facial recognition

Facial recognition is a computerized method of identifying people based solely on their facial features. These systems range from small cameras that can detect different emotional responses to pinpointing the identities of multiple people in a moving crowd.

How does it work?

A high-definition camera captures images of a person’s face and checks for specific facial landmarks, such as the distance between the eyes, width of the nose, and shape of cheekbones. The recognition system then compares these findings to faces within its database. The more images that are in the database, the more likely the system will be able to identify the face.

Where is it used?

Facial recognition has a wide range of applications. Casinos use it to help identify troublemakers before they start gambling. Stores use it to find known shoplifters. In Germany, a billboard can recognize the gender and age of passersby and display an ad only when women are near. The strangest use may be in Spain, where a comedy club uses facial recognition to charge customers a small fee every time they laugh.

Law enforcement has long been interested in facial recognition and has deployed it at airports, train stations, border crossings, and sporting events around the world, hoping to catch wanted criminals and prevent terrorist attacks. However, the technology has not proven effective enough to be considered reliable.

Currently, facial recognition technology is most successful on Facebook, where it's used to tag users in photos. Because Facebook holds billions of photos and receives millions more every day, its database is constantly growing. And because its users help identify the subjects of the photos, Facebook can learn what a person looks like from different angles. Thanks to the quantity and quality of its data, Facebook is 97.35 percent accurate when recognizing a face in an image.

What are its problems?

Despite the potential of facial recognition, the technology is still not ready for public use on a massive scale. The biggest problem is that a number of things can confuse the technology, including poor lighting, sunglasses, or masks. There are even clothes and glasses that have been designed with the sole purpose of disrupting facial recognition systems, like the glasses shown below.

Invasion of privacy is also a concern, as many of these systems could potentially start collecting facial data without your consent whenever you enter a public place. Unfortunately, there are currently no federal laws in the United States that directly govern facial recognition. There are also concerns that institutions like the FBI could demand access to facial databases (like the one owned by Facebook) and gain a wealth of personal information.

What’s the future of facial recognition?

Until the technology improves, it's difficult to say exactly how the future will be shaped by facial recognition. A lack of computing power, small databases, and image capturing problems currently prevent facial recognition from being more successful. However, these problems will likely be overcome as computers become more powerful and organizations continue to build their facial databases.

There is no estimated timeline of when this technology will be effective enough to become widespread. But whenever that time comes, it may become incredibly difficult to avoid in daily life.