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What is Biometric Face Recognition?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Biometric face recognition works by using a computer to analyze a subject's facial structure. Face recognition software takes a number of points and measurements, including the distances between key characteristics such as eyes, nose and mouth, angles of key features such as the jaw and forehead, and lengths of various portions of the face. Using all of this information, the program creates a unique template incorporating all of the numerical data. This template may then be compared to enormous databases of facial images to identify the subject.

Good biometric software then produces a number of potential matches, rating each based on a numeric score of how similar the match is. When multiple images are used, the accuracy of biometric readings increases greatly, a fact which has provoked the assembly of massive databases, particularly on key figures such as terrorists.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

Biometric face recognition is currently used in a handful of American airports, and was used at the 2001 Super Bowl to guard against the perceived threat of a terrorist attack. Nineteen individuals were flagged at the Tampa Super Bowl as having criminal records, but upon closer examination all had only minor infractions on their record.

A number of groups are looking at using this technology in the near future. Airports in the United States and other nations are moving towards incorporating biometric face recognition systems throughout their workings, as the sheer amount of traffic and high potential for terrorist targeting make them an ideal choice. A number of banks have begun test programs outfitting their autoteller machines with biometric face recognition programs, to offer instant cashing of checks without the need for a human teller.

In Britain and other nations which have a history of video surveillance, the transition to using biometric face recognition is contested very little. In the United States, however, which has a strong historical aversion to technologies seen as undermining privacy, there is a major battle being fought between proponents of biometric face recognition systems and its outspoken opponents. Most people who oppose the integration of these systems into everyday environments do so on the basis of civil liberties. They hold that such pervasive identification of who you are — in essence tracking your movements every time you enter a space controlled by a biometric system — violates fundamental rights to privacy and opens up the potential for serious abuse.

The primary use at the this time for biometrics remains for medium-security access to controlled environments. Acting as a replacement for card-keys or thumb-prints seems to be the most obvious use in the near future. At present, even discounting privacy concerns, the technology does not appear to be accurate enough to ensure its adoption for high-security by the world at large. Without a large, centralized database of terrorist photographs, the major argument in favor of biometric recognition lacks much of its force. Though there is a push to assemble such a database, it will undoubtedly be many years before it is sufficient to make biometric face recognition more than an interesting extra security measure; in the meantime it will likely serve as an addition to, but not replacement of, human involvement.

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Discussion Comments


It would be interesting to see if it can learn to distinguish between person and its twin or a life size face photograph.


I think all those biometric access control panels that they're making for home security systems and whatnot sound really cool, but they're so expensive that I just can't see them becoming widely used any time soon.

Besides, what happens if one of them malfunctions? Then you either set it off because your fingerprints or retinas didn't match perfectly, or otherwise anybody can get in.

Does anybody have one of these things, does it actually work?


Many countries actually use biometric fingerprint scanners at their customs check points now. Whenever my Swiss friend goes in or out of the US, they scan his fingerprints.

I guess its to check if he has a record...I don't really know though.


Some of the newer, higher end computers are using biometric security too.

I use an 2009 ASUS, and instead of using a password, it has biometric face recognition.

The way it works is the first time you sign in, you can configure the computer to take a picture of you. Then it reads the contours of your face, and saves it in the computer's security database.

Every time you sign in after that, the computer keeps a record of your biometric authentication, and incorporates that into your profile.

So basically, it learns what you look like, so even though it takes some time for it to "learn" what you look like, after a few weeks, I stopped typing my password in at all -- it recognizes me every time.


Assuming all you have was a photograph of a person, could a facial recognition program scour the other digital photos on internet and identify matching faces? If so, which company is at the forefront of that technology?

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