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Finding a Face in the Crowd

A new class of police software lets you identify subjects in seconds, even when they're disguised.

October 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

Practical Applications

Once a department has decided on a system and successfully installed it, the agency can use the software to help solve multiple problems that plague police officers.

Many people with a history of arrests give false names when arrested, hoping to fool police and get a lesser sentence as a first offender. But searching for a person based on facial features will bring up the correct person, no matter what name is given.

Sgt. Guy Dove of the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department has had great success using facial recognition technology to identify people who refuse to give their real names during booking.

"A lot of our arrests are recurring. They just keep coming back over and over. So facial recognition is very beneficial to us."

Officers can also use facial recognition to identify people who refuse to give any name at all. Not to mention its use in investigating forgeries, fraud, and identity theft.

But facial recognition isn't just used to find criminals or dangerous people. The technology also helps find missing and exploited persons.

Tampa, Fla., and Virginia Beach, Va., now keep an eye on public places with cameras hooked up to Identix facial recognition software. These cities' programs are designed to catch crooks as well as find missing persons by matching images on the camera to databases in local police departments.

In another use for facial recognition, Imagis Technologies was contracted by the U.K. National Crime Squad to develop a system for Interpol to identify missing children being used for child pornography.

This system has started in the U.K., but will eventually search for missing children globally. By including the ability to recognize common backgrounds in pedophilic pictures, authorities hope to use Imagis' program to link various children appearing in photos to the same photographer...and catch him.

Future of Facial Recognition

Unfortunately, criminals are forever looking to evade the authorities. Many people in the industry believe 3D imaging will be the next incarnation of this facial recognition to help police stay ahead of the game.

With the current 2D face recognition technology, if a person's face is not fully in view in a video or picture, his face cannot be imaged. With 3D imaging, a person's profile could be mapped and matched against a database as easily as a full front view.  Researchers are also looking to improve the ability to recognize faces in different lighting situations.

FaceFinder, from Viisage Technology, shows a current image next to the closest match retrieved from a computer database. You can search for a match using photographs or still images captured from video.

FaceVision by GeoMetrix is already creating 3D imaging using two still cameras. Other companies are looking at using this technology as well, but most are still in the development stages.

3D imaging with a 3D camera is not widely in use yet because of the money and logistics involved in upgrading to such a different system.

"Police have been taking mugshots for a hundred years now," says Imagis' Drummond, "so they already have the databases of criminals to match against. The mugshot databases all have 2D photographs. If you're going to use 3D, you really have to match a 3D image against a 3D image. You need to use 3D cameras and 3D cameras are much more expensive. We've evaluated these cameras, but until it's clear that police are wiling to invest about five to six times the cost of a standard camera, 3D cameras are generally not useable."

Viisage's Mazzu has similar sentiments. "We're already doing things in the development of 3D technology, but the actual devices aren't commonplace by any means yet. That will come eventually, I believe, in the future. There will be much more specialized applications first."

People in the industry expect the 2D form of facial recognition currently in use won't be going away anytime soon. And neither will other types of biometric identification. Mazzu predicts facial recognition "will become a tool used even more than fingerprints. You're not going to do away with fingerprints, but does that mean you're not going to use facial recognition? No, you'll use them both."

Privacy Concerns

People want the country to be secure, but they don't want to feel like Big Brother is always watching them, violating their rights to privacy. Identix President and CEO Joseph J. Atick recognizes the importance of this concern to the public.

"As our customer list grows, and more agencies adopt facial recognition to enhance public safety, Identix continues to work hard to ensure that all installations adhere to established responsible use guidelines."

Identix follows specific privacy principles regarding public areas where its Face-It software is in use. Signage informing the public that the system is in use is posted in corresponding areas when possible.

Most people are aware that security cameras in airports are now often equipped with face recognition systems. But now they are popping up in casinos and shopping malls, among other public places. There was a public outcry when it was discovered that facial recognition was being used to scan every person at Super Bowl XXXV in 2001.

According to Arthur Zwern of 3D imaging company GeoMetrix, "The industry is moving toward finding ways to protect privacy while also finding ways to solve crimes."

But public perception is not always the defining factor in the way public safety runs its business.

"Is the Super Bowl the best place to use facial recognition to find criminals?" asks Zwern. "Probably not. Is an airport a good place to do that? Well, after 9-11 I'm pretty sure most Americans would say, 'Yes, take my picture in the airport all you want if it's going to keep me from getting blown up in an airplane.'"

But according to industry leaders, precautions are taken. Faces that do not bring up a possible match in a database are immediately erased and discarded. This is done both to preserve privacy and to make room for information on true threats.

For More Information


Identix Incorporated

Imagis Technologies Inc.

Viisage Technology Inc.

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