Facial recognition technology: Staring down the future

The use of facial recognition will grow not only in law enforcement, but in private society as well

Science fiction and criminal drama movies and TV shows have portrayed futuristic societies using facial recognition to identify a bad guy. But the future is closer than that. Some law enforcement agencies — and even private businesses like casinos — are doing this now. 

Since that dreadful day in September 2001, the concept of law enforcement using facial recognition to identify criminals has gained momentum, especially here in the United States. 

Facial recognition was actually developed in the mid-1960s by employees of an unnamed government agency, and little of that pioneering work was ever published. The first facial recognition computers depended on human interaction and were only able to process 40 faces an hour. It had to get much better and faster to be of any practical use.

How It Works
Obviously facial recognition cannot view a photo and immediately recognize a person. The computer and software depends on a databank of photos to compare to or the face the computer sees will just be another face.

Facial recognition works much like the license plate readers (LPRs) installed on some patrol cars. The LPR’s mounted cameras constantly monitor license plates around the patrol vehicle, and the officer is notified if a certain license plate selected by the person entering the data comes into view. 

Facial recognition functions in a similar manner but uses facial measurements — calculated in a fraction of a second — to flag the person or dismiss the face and go on to the next. Faces can identify a person almost as surely as a fingerprint does. The face possesses certain measurements and features a person cannot disguise. It is these measurements and features the facial recognition software uses to identify people.

Existing Applications
Some of you may already be using facial recognition and not know it. For example, when you upload a photo onto a Facebook page, Facebook software may recognize a person in the photo from another Facebook page and frame that person’s face. The software then asks you if you want to “tag” that person. 

Voila! That’s facial recognition technology at work.

Several countries — especially in Europe — are currently using facial recognition in law enforcement and allowing it to be used by advertisers and some retail stores. For example, England utilized facial recognition to flag “hooligans” after a soccer match brawl. British law enforcement used the facial recognition data collected to alert authorities if those same “hooligans” arrived at any event during the London Olympics. 

Some national chains are using “faceprints” from Facebook and Instagram to gather images to develop a method of linking a photo with a person’s online profile and online shopping history.

Facial recognition is even used in smartphone technology as a security feature. 

Current Police Work
At the time of this writing, 12 states in the United States do not utilize any kind of facial recognition for law enforcement. Of the remaining states, law enforcement is limited in the use of facial recognition during criminal investigations. The state of Ohio is the only state allowing law enforcement to utilize facial recognition within their duties.

In 2007, the FBI launched one of two programs using facial recognition in the state of North Carolina’s DMV. The FBI matched up DMV photographs and mug shots to attempt to locate missing persons and fugitives. In 2009 the use of the facial recognition software resulted in the capture of a double homicide suspect from California. Since then the FBI has created the Facial Analysis Comparison and Evaluation Unit. The unit expanded the program to 11 states and allows federal authorities access to state motor vehicle records.

The Future
The use of facial recognition will grow. Imagine yourself on patrol in your beat late at night and observing a suspicious person loitering next to a building in a high-crime area. Using your smartphone with a facial recognition application, you discover the person is a known burglar with several outstanding felony warrants. You make your arrest safely. 

This technology exists today. It is only matter of cost (and time) before it begins to become available to us patrol officers.

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