Facing up to the future of biometrics in surveillance applications
June 28, 2012
By: Will Roberts
past few thousands of years, biometrics has expanded
from capturing finger and handprints to using digital
technology. Thanks to this innovation, many different types
of biometric data are now available for identification.
While many biometric technologies have begun to mature, the
future of biometrics clearly lies in systems that recognize
Facial recognition technology has come a long way from
first semi-automated system in the 1960's. Given
adequate image quality, modern systems can do amazing
things, such as:
- Converting a two-dimensional camera image into a
three-dimensional face and very accurately matching it
to a stored image.
- Tracking a single person through a large area
across multiple cameras.
- Pulling general characteristics like age and gender
from a facial image and
use it to deliver targeted advertising.
- Supplementing tickets and passes at places like
theme parks to provide faster and easier access.
- Social networks can
automatically tag new pictures for you, based on
face recognizing technology.
Although these technologies are quite futuristic, the
future will bring further advancements in recognition
technology. One new tool is a
3D dual-camera system that captures a face in three
dimensions, eliminating the complexity of converting a two
dimensional picture back and forth to a three dimensional
face. While this technology is currently available in a
self-contained access control unit, the future could bring
arrays of cameras that can pull 3D faces out of a crowd,
Even with these advanced technologies, facial biometric
technology still has a long way to go. Many areas still lack
biometric systems, due to the cost of installing them.
Multi-camera tracking systems like the one in use in London
City airport that can identify security wait times are even
rarer. While this problem will be alleviated over time, it
will take a while for the technology to reach full
While more closed circuit TV systems are being installed,
a significant problem for the technology is the limited
quality of video that many of them capture. For example,
London's system was unable to capture images of adequate
quality to identify looters during that city's recent riots.
One disappointing fact about London's system is that, in
many ways, it represents the state of the art for a large
scale face-recognizing surveillance network since it was
recently upgraded for the 2012 Olympics. 1080p
high-definition cameras and infrared cameras that can see in
the dark are available but are rarely used in surveillance
systems. Until they become more prevalent, face-identifying
technology will remain imperfect.
The software behind the technology still needs work. In a
perfect situation with clear, high resolution images of
faces, recognition rates are quite high. In real world
situations, such as videos of crowds or of moving people,
software breaks down. Simple things like makeup or
variations in lighting can cause the algorithms to stumble.
The future is likely to bring better recognition software
that can more accurately simulate what the human eye and
Finally, the technology is likely to harm its own
effectiveness as a law enforcement tool as popular
understanding of its capabilities expands. Thanks to the "CSI
Effect," juries have come to expect high levels of
forensic evidence as a prerequisite to granting convictions.
This technology remains imperfect and, due to the low
penetration rate of high quality cameras, will remain so for
the foreseeable future. At the same time, television
programs and movies will show face-tracking systems doing
impossible things. This will likely lead to juries refusing
to convict criminals due to a lack of face matches.
Over time, these problems will be solved and there is no
question that the face will remain the most effective
biometric tool for the future. While there is a great deal
of room for revolutionary change in the way that the
technology works, the pace at which it will be installed
will be slower due to the need for both software and
hardware upgrades. Nevertheless, we can look forward to a
day when our faces are our keys, and, at the same time, fear
a day when we can be tracked wherever we go.
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