Sunday, January 23, 2005

Big Brother cashes in: Biometrics industry sees profit growth in surveillance camera proliferation

As the Texas Department of Public Safety and the House Defense Affairs Committee plot ways to create a statewide database of biometric facial recognition data on Texas drivers and ID card holders, the biometrics industry plots how to merge facial recogntion technology with closed circuit surveillance camera systems (CCTV) in the "next two to three years," reports Jason Tan, writing in A&S Magazine out of Tapei.

A few Grits readers have expressed to me privately they thought I was going "overboard" or "too far" to predict that surveillance cameras might be used with facial recognition data to track individuals as they went about their daily lives. But Tan, who follows the biometrics industry closely, doesn't think so. He writes:
Indeed, the revolution of the industry is underway with the participation of CCTV vendors.

“Facial recognition is an interesting technology. It was introduced along with the development of CCTVs,” commented Jison Hsu, biometric solutions division manager of PenPower Technology Ltd. It is a Taiwan-based company offering recognition technologies including handwriting, voice, facial recognition, as well as wireless communication.

“Nowadays, surveillance cameras can be everywhere. People are starting to change their mindset that although cameras do invade their privacy to a certain level, they have become a part of everyday lives for better security,” he claimed.

As surveillance cameras at the streets, buildings and public places become more prevalent, people will get used to being watched at all times. This will spur the growth of facial recognition solutions as people are more at ease with them.

“The combination of facial recognition with CCTVs will definitely be the future trend,” Hsu stated.
Once surveillance cameras are in place (I'm talking to you, Houston!), biometric facial recognition systems can be added on later, or they will be able to soon.
Cognitec (a German biometrics firm) seconded, adding that facial recognition can be integrated in existing video surveillance application and supports security officers with hint about suspect persons that are previously enrolled. “This is the most challenging face recognition technology application and still at the very beginning,” an official said. ...

[Surveillance camera system] makers encounter numerous obstacles when exploring the market. The issues to be resolved are the existing problems of CCTVs: hardware, data storage, compression technologies, transmission speed and picture-capturing under various lighting conditions. To cite an example, CCTV players have been working hard to capture images under extremely dim lighting environment in recent two years.

However, facial recognition will be a valuable add-on feature to CCTVs. It is an extra intelligent function that says the system will be able to capture human faces and even identify the faces, he added.

Furthermore, CCTV solutions will become more powerful with the integration of facial biometrics. For instance, it will stop recording when no human are present within the cameras’ viewing areas, and will record at a slower speed simultaneously, thus cutting down data storage in return.

To his understanding, not every CCTV vendor has jumped into the biometric rush. They might have sensed the trend, and started to treat it as a long-term investment and do not expect fast adoption.

“But facial recognition functionality will set them apart from others who do not have this intelligence,” Hsu cautioned, advising CCTV and biometric-solution providers to form synergies to complement each other for the research and development.
Tan writes that facial recognition technology appeals to government users for mass security projects because it's the only biometric data that the individual does not have to give consent in order to access the information.
Compared to other forms of biometric applications such as fingerprint, iris recognition, or palm recognition, facial recognition is the only one that requires no contact with sensors at all.
The problem is, even though DPS and certain legislators are gung ho to install these facial recognition systems, they don't really work yet. Tan writes,
However, “biometric-based recognition technologies inevitably have certain limitations,” Hsu noted. Compared to fingerprint--its more established biometric counterpart, the facial technology still has some distance to catch up with.

“The first applications for tracing wanted faces were unfortunately not very successful to this date. But the input from an automatic facial recognition system is always a helpful support for any kind of video surveillance system as facial technology offers intelligent tracking,” added Kuip.

Currently there is a great interest from airports in the use of facial recognition for both access control and video surveillance. One example of a situation in which it would be useful is passenger recognition at the moment of exiting an airplane. These passengers would then be traced again when appearing at the airport customs a while later.

However, the technology is not reliable enough yet for such applications at the moment.
All of which brings Texas back to the question: is facial recognition technology really the best way to spend the $22.5 million in the asset forfeiture fund?


Adina said...

Here's a quote from Bruce Schneier, a leading security expert on why facial recognition is useless at preventing terrorism in practice:

"Suppose this magically effective face-recognition software is 99.99 percent accurate. That is, if someone is a terrorist, there is a 99.99 percent chance that the software indicates "terrorist," and if someone is not a terrorist, there is a 99.99 percent chance that the software indicates "non-terrorist." Assume that one in ten million flyers, on average, is a terrorist. Is the software any good?

No. The software will generate 1000 false alarms for every one real terrorist. And every false alarm still means that all the security people go through all of their security procedures. Because the population of non-terrorists is so much larger than the number of terrorists, the test is useless. This result is counterintuitive and surprising, but it is correct. The false alarms in this kind of system render it mostly useless. It's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" increased 1000-fold."


One challenge is communicating this basic logic to policy makers. I think that a nicely-done, one-page color chart would help a lot. Titled "the boy who cried wolf" or "the cost of false alarms".

The chart would include
a) a real number, like the number of drivers in Texas, or the number of airline trips
b) the real number of false alarms you'd get, even with technology that's better than today's technology.
c) the cost of dealing with false alarms.

Read the whole essay here:

If you haven't read Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, about sane ways to approach homeland security issues, I highly recommend it.