With security concerns ever more present in our lives, there is a debate over how best to protect our public venues, transport hubs, and even schools. Some advocate more guns. Some call for more checks. Others — more security staff.
One potential solution may allay our concerns without ratcheting up tensions. In fact, its backers say that recent improvements in facial recognition (FR) software will not only enhance safety in our airports, malls, and stadiums, the technology can make public spaces more convenient, frictionless, and personal.
“There are increasingly security threats around places and events where people gather. Unfortunately, that is the world that we live in today,” said Raffie Beroukhim, Senior Vice President – Advanced Recognition Systems Division, NEC Corporation of America.
At the same time, the rollout of FR on smartphones and other gadgets, is making this technology more acceptable by helping consumers discover its benefits, the executive said in an interview.
“Overall, the general perception has been positive. People feel the convenience and security that it gives them,” Beroukhim said. “It has ease of use, it’s contactless, and it’s affordable.”
Recent advances in biometrics allow software to identify a person’s face from video feeds even in poor light, low-resolution conditions, and in a matter of seconds. This allows safety teams at airports, stadiums, or event facilities to proactively scan faces, capturing their geometric data.
Individuals can be identified in real-time, gifting us vital minutes to prevent a tragedy or to minimize risks. The software becomes a tool not only to speed up investigations after the fact, but a way to safeguard and improve the community.
In the last three years, since the deadly attack on a Paris concert venue in 2015 or the 2016 bombings in Brussels Airports, the accuracy of FR technology has made a massive leap forward. FR algorithms are now almost as good at detecting people in streaming video as they are at identifying faces of those looking directly at the camera, according to a year-long study published in 2017 by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Department of Commerce.
The many difficulties with capturing people’s faces, such as odd camera angles, poor lighting, varying facial expressions, film compression, or even the fact that someone is wearing a hat, are now being overcome, according to the NIST report, which ranked NEC’s software the highest among 16 global vendors that it tested.
Since the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency started testing NEC’s NeoFace software at U.S. airports in 2016, it has registered a success rate close to 99 percent. The tests also revealed a public acquiescence to this technology, which scans outbound passenger’s face against all photos on file, including from passport and visa documents.
The test program is currently employed in eight U.S. airports. “I would be surprised if the technology was not introduced in all of the country’s hubs within 12 months. At this point the technology is proven. Now it comes down to the logistics,” Beroukhim said.
A nation-wide rollout would make a significant dent in reducing people’s travel time and take the strain off airport security. Consider this: More than 100,000 flights take off daily. Each year, airports carry around 3.7 billion passengers, and the U.S. accounts for almost a quarter of that, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Significantly, for the first time since 9/11, the CBP will be able to introduce biometric procedures for those leaving the U.S. – a Congress mandate that had proven impossible to fulfil via fingerprint scanning and other time-draining approaches.
Closing the biometric loop at the airports will likely make the U.S. the first country that’s able to verify visa compliance, helping to catch those illegally entering and exiting the country.
One major sticking point for broader use of FR has previously been privacy concerns. As NIST’s research showed, advances in deep learning have made the technology good enough to ID people without their “cooperation.”
For example, when a visitor at a pizza parlor in Oslo, Norway in May 2017 noticed that the screen above him seemed to contain a hidden camera, whose data was routed via FR software, he was upset. The visitor posted his feelings online, and the comments went viral. As a result, the restaurant dismantled the camera, which used FR to determine which advertising to show clients based on their age and gender.
“All use of FR should be accompanied by notifications and the chance for people to opt-in or opt-out,” Beroukhim said, noting that this is NEC’s approach.
However, society is not as concerned about FR as some activists would lead us to believe. After all, security cameras have existed for decades. In the U.K. alone, there is one closed-circuit TV camera for every 14 people, according to a 2013 base estimate by The British Security Industry Authority.
The arrival of new FR-driven gadgets, including Apple’s iPhone X, which use a more basic set-up to correctly match the owner’s face, as well as a steady introduction of the technology in retail and advertising, is making FR more accepted and also appreciated since consumers enjoy the benefits of document-free transactions.
One Chinese university in Beijing is even using the technology to take attendance in lectures as a way to deter students from skipping class.
California-based restaurant group, CaliBurger, meanwhile, last year unveiled self-order kiosks that allow customers with loyalty accounts to pay using their face as ID verification. The clients also get a personalized menu based on prior purchases. The company, plans to enable FR technology in all its global stores within the year.
This trend has industry analysts at MarketsandMarkets™ INC. predicting that the global FR market will grow from $4.1 billion in 2017 to $7.8 billion by 2022.
“The key to broader social acceptance of biometrics and FR in particular is showing that privacy and security are not a zero-sum game,” said Beroukhim.
Take as example a major sporting occasion, such as a Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) event, which NEC successfully supported in 2017 to enable security and protect players’ privacy.
There’s also a direct potential benefit for ordinary consumers. Take as example a trip to a baseball game.
“What if I tell a baseball fan that they don’t need to bring their ticket or ID to the gate? What if they can get personalized entry? What if they don’t need to wait 20 minutes to get a beer?” Beroukhim said.
“If you present it that way, you’ll see a lot of people say: I want to opt in.”
Of course, with consumer-based uses there should always be room for individual choice. When it comes to public security, however, FR’s convenience is more a welcome bonus to something we cannot gamble with: our lives.
At a time when people start to question whether traveling internationally is really safe; when we skip a trip to the cinema after news of another act of random violence; At a time, when we cannot feel secure even about our children’s schools, we must take action.
We have the technology to “reclaim” our public spaces. Safety should not be an option.