Automatic Face-Recognition Software Getting Better

Facebook has developed a face-recognition system that works almost as well as the human brain:

Asked whether two unfamiliar photos of faces show the same person, a human being will get it right 97.53 percent of the time. New software developed by researchers at Facebook can score 97.25 percent on the same challenge, regardless of variations in lighting or whether the person in the picture is directly facing the camera.

Human brains are optimized for facial recognition, which makes this even more impressive.

This kind of technology will change video surveillance. Right now, it's general, and identifying people is largely a forensic activity. This will make cameras part of an automated process for identifying people.

Posted on March 20, 2014 at 7:12 AM • 64 Comments


FrankMarch 20, 2014 7:58 AM

It's been my experience that Facebook's facial recognition feature often "finds me" in earlier photos of other members of my family (false positives). I guess there's need for a tweak to the "family resemblance" algorithm.

Jean MeslierMarch 20, 2014 8:00 AM


I believe the article is referring to new software that FB has not yet deployed for general use.

CVfreakMarch 20, 2014 8:02 AM

So... where can I get the source code for this project?
I'd love to have something like this in OpenCV.

paulMarch 20, 2014 9:10 AM

These kinds of numbers give security planners another parameter to think about when considering how many people should be allowed access to any particular chunk of a facility. If you can segment an operation in the right way, you may be able to simplify surveillance and authorization issues significantly.

Of course, that also means someone will get told, "Sorry, we can't hire you, your face is too average-looking."

HilbertMarch 20, 2014 9:34 AM

I believe this is rather worrying. Storing metadata, emails, phone calls etc. is one thing. Being able to link a face of someone you see in public to these data brings surveillance to a new level. If Facebook can do it, the NSA can do it, too. In a few years, everybody can do it.
This is one of the reasons why I don't have pictures of myself on Facebook.

Gavin B.March 20, 2014 10:05 AM

When assessing face recognition it's getting beyond 98% that counts - especially when your dealing with large populations.
Witness at all the asymptopic ROC curves in the literature.

Assessment needs to consider the adversarial challenge as well - impersonation detection is often a higher priority than face recognition per se.

Posed photos are a lesser challenge than the images you get from say CCTV.

vas pupMarch 20, 2014 10:40 AM

Great veteran of CIA Antonio Mendez many years ago developed high quality masks (they were tested in particular in a field - see his book "The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in CIA" - published many years before "Argo" movie, and contains more interesting information about Tony's life) which could beat this system - Facebook and FBI should take such option in consideration, the latter (if buy or rent such software) in particular when dealing with agents of the foreign states. I guess drug cartel can afford such masks as well having substantial financial resources. But if face recognition software utilized in accord with other external biometrics: height, gate, etc. to narrow sample, then it more productive.
@Bruce: the question on my previous posting related still valid: did they feed AI with diversified (on race, nationality, age, other demographics) samples for learning purposes?

u38cgMarch 20, 2014 10:56 AM

>> If Facebook can do it, the NSA can do it, too.

Google achieved this several years ago. The cat is out of the bag. The question is what we do about managing these capabilities.

DavidMarch 20, 2014 11:24 AM

It is called narcissism, tagging, and detecting redundant pair photos. Nearly 97% of photos uploaded are tagged.

kashmarekMarch 20, 2014 11:43 AM

Define "getting better". And for whom?

If making improvement in facial recognition is the objective, it may or may not be the case.

If being able to cite improvement in facial recognition as a measure of influence, intimidation, and control, there is likely some advancement.

Though politically elucidated, the purpose is still unclear.

boondoxMarch 20, 2014 12:32 PM

I see applications for this in robotics (a helper robot being able to recognise its owner/family members/pets, etc.), and general surveillance.

I don't know why Fb would want or need this information badly enough to throw research money at it.

Clues, anyone?

BuckMarch 20, 2014 12:59 PM

Facebook's business model is very fragile, and it depends on a constant influx of new users in order to continue capturing advertising revenue... While it may be somewhat ironic that this kind of research is liable to further alienate potential users, there's no denying Facebook's need for alternate revenue streams if it is to survive through the next decade.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 20, 2014 1:09 PM

While this probably represents progress at certain tasks, like discriminating between posed pictures, it looks to me like it wouldn't approach human-level performance for normal face recognition, like you do when watching TV.

Aligning the picture to be straight-on loses a lot of the information that humans use to recognize faces.

Because of facial symmetry, a quarter view tends to be much more revealing than a straight face shot---it reveals most of the straight-on information and most of the profile information, and disambiguates subtle interplays between the two.

If you try to look up a bunch of actors that you see on TV using IMDB, you'll likely find that even when you find the right actor's page, you sometimes don't recognize them from their main thumbnail because the straight-on picture "doesn't look like them."

That's one of the things that makes some people photogenic and others not. When you lose basic spatial information about skull structure by looking at a mugshot-ish straight shot, your brain fills in something like an "average" profile contour, and then tries to refine that with more detailed shape-from-shading information, and can misinterpret the information it does have.

Another problem with typical snapshots of people is that people often use the little flash built into their camera, which provides lighting from a really weird direction. (Light in nature is almost always more from above than below, and almost never straight in somebody's face.)

The upshot of that is that most people take terrible pictures of each other, and sometimes only recognize their own friends in their own pictures because they already know the person's face, and unconsciously undo some of the damage and fill in spatial info more correctly.

DanielMarch 20, 2014 2:06 PM

"I dont want to live in this brave new world"

Other than the typo, I agree with every letter in that sentence.

I thought about it the other day when I was out hiking. I go out into the wilderness, real wilderness not some park, to get away from people and reconnect with nature. I have no cell phones, no GPS, just me and my backpack and some food. It ruins the entire experience to know that somewhere above me there is a satellite that can peer up my anus and that can track every move I make, unless I creep through the bushes in camouflage. I think that what strikes me at the core: there simply isn't any such thing as being alone anymore. One is always being watched by someone somewhere, the only relevant question is do they care. And given that I can't control whether some stranger cares or not it isn't much comfort to know most people aren't paying attention.

Regardless, I do not think there is any putting the genie back into the bottle. Bruce thinks that we can solve the problem with laws and culture; I'm more cynical. I think the lure of power is too great. Look at the obsession over a single missing airliner. Everyone is freaking out because it has been two weeks...TWO WEEKS....and it hasn't been found. Intolerable in our brave new world. It's going to get worse and it not get any better.

AlexMarch 20, 2014 2:15 PM

EVEN more reason why we need an open and honest discussion on privacy and retention policies, followed by legislation (with severe penalties for intentional abuse).

Unfortunately I don't see this happening and the sheeple seem to blindly go along with it.

I'm with the other two posters who want to check out fo this world -- I'm right there with you. Fortunately, I don't mind living "off the grid". I rather enjoy my nights at home, with no TV, no internet. Books, music, scientific/medical research papers, good friends, and a few good wines are more than enough to keep me entertained. As it stands now, I have more of that to last me for the rest of my life.

kashmarekMarch 20, 2014 2:26 PM

In the state where I live, the DOT now has rigid rules about the picture taken for your non-driving identity card or your drivers license. No hats, no glasses, rigid straight on look at the camera, no smile, no teeth showing, only relaxed (normal?) facial expression, ad nauseam.

These are all in response to producing a "standard" photo that can be easily digested for computer storage and factorization when it comes to searching for similar, look-alike, or image matches (I think this is part of the Real ID initiative). I would guess there will be as many errors in this use as there are in any of the other biometrics that are thrown in our face (pun intended).

What is scary here is that many of the "matches", an operation of questionable value, will be false positives, which will be used in a detrimental fashion. Chances are few or none of the "matches" will be used to prove innocence, only to create "persons of interest" in a "no-fly list" fashion, or tags that will follow one to the grave (and probably beyond with detrimental implications for children and grandchildren).

Shawn SmithMarch 20, 2014 3:12 PM

After looking at the description in the linked article, it looks more like an evolution than a revolution in using neural nets to perform facial verification (not recognition directly). The article said that it uses a 9-layer neural net with approx. 120 million connections to provide the pattern recognition (probably of the created models) and that they used a set of 4 million photos of faces belonging to almost 4000 people to train their system. I don't know how broadly different ethnic groups, ages, genders are represented in that set, but the article claims they are from "a standard data set that researchers use to benchmark face-processing software." Take a look at it yourself if you're really curious.

The use of neural nets for this kind of stuff has been bandied about for at least 40 years, and Ray Kurzweil has been really pushing this meme for over 15 years.

@KnottWhittingley: According to the article, they first "rotate" the image so that it is "front facing" and then apply "average" face parameters to make a 3-D model. That 3-D model is then compared with other 3-D models to see which is closest. To me, that description sounds pretty close to what you said humans do to recognize photos. I could be misunderstanding you, so I would be pleased if you correct me.

@Hilbert: Unless you're sure that everyone who has taken a picture of you for their own Facebook account has not tagged you, it's probably unwise to assume that Facebook (and everyone who can get to that tagged photo) does not have you in their system somewhere. I don't have a Facebook account, but my several relatives do. I probably got tagged at least once in that set, and possibly even by the people I work with or have worked with in the past. In extreme cases, maybe even old classmates posting entire yearbooks.

TimMarch 20, 2014 3:47 PM

"I dont want to live in this brave new world"

Could be a double feature.

Maybe we have to sit through THX1138 to see Star Wars.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 20, 2014 3:58 PM


I stand corrected.

Thank you. I was misled by a description I saw elsewhere first, and wasn't paying good attention.

This is a bit scary if they've actually gotten it to work. (Not that I doubted it would happen pretty soon.)

Shawn SmithMarch 20, 2014 4:15 PM

And there I went spouting off and made a stupid first-grade-level reading comprehension error. The article states that the training was done with Facebook photos (4M photos of 4K people), but the final test (probably where the 97.25% number comes from) was with the linked set from UMass. My previous post implied they were one and the same.

Shutting up now.

YammaMarch 20, 2014 5:15 PM

This all depresses me. I wish I had another 20 years of my life to live without feeling the profound violation of my privacy every day now. No longer will I have an opportunity to explore without being monitored in some manner. No longer can I have private conversations. I wish I could say I have the privacy of my own mind, but having grown up on the internet, all of my private thoughts have been stated in some way online. My thoughts feel violated even without being on a computer anymore. all of this has caused me to reevaluate my entire life.

Damn you NSA and damn you Snowden. I was happier not knowing any of this.

YammaMarch 20, 2014 5:21 PM

And for context, my post above is written with the assumption that if a private sector entity has the capability, the feds do too via coopt. And the feds apparently have no respect for personal privacy in their zeal to stop crime.

MingoVMarch 20, 2014 5:38 PM

The test for facial recognition was far too easy. Does this second photo depict the same person as the first is not remotely close to: here are 1000 photos, do any of them match any of the 100,000 photos in your database?

BuckMarch 20, 2014 5:58 PM

@Shawn re: (4M photos of 4K people)

Error, made by you... yes..? But four thousand photos does not make sample random! Hmm..?

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasonsMarch 20, 2014 6:02 PM

@ SavageJohn
I'm sympathetic to your sentiments and encourage you to seek comfort from people that understand the source of your pain. Many here have become disenchanted with the problems that have releaved that we are all dealing with a loss! The loss of trust, governace, rule of law, and even our humanity and it has touched us all whether we know it or not. I recommend that you express the feelings that are the source of your dispare...privately or publically (that statement used to mean something).

I am not a health or social services professional but you statement makes me quite concerned for your well being. I don't believe this is a forum for this type of discussion but I cannot silently witness the pain of others especially as it is caused by people whom belive that this is good for society. Also, your situation should not be used as a talking point--unless you're an avatar--and I want to recognize you as a living, breathing, human being. This seems to be the underlying thesis, that we are lossing our humanity. Stay well John and know that I am sure several here on this blog can understand what is causing you so much pain. Bruce, this seems to be something that might need a very public response--and soon. I want to moderate my comments as this is a situation that I am certain will give others concern. I'm no expert in this area and need to express the very real problem these issues have become.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 20, 2014 6:23 PM


Unfortunately, and in their defense, there's no one "real world" test, and the ROC curves they present are interesting. They tell you the tradeoff curve between resistance to one kind of error(false positives) and resistance to another (false negatives), for a known set of images. (Tested on different specific images from that set than it's trained on.)

But yeah, any such thing is going to make mostly errors in many real world circumstances---as are humans.

For example, if you're looking for one in a thousand people and have a one in a hundred chance of making an error, you'll make about 10 times as many errors as correct identifications. Likewise if you're looking for 999 out of a thousand people in the candidate pool---it'll miss about 10, even if your test is "99 percent right" in both senses.

By fiddling the false negatives vs. false positives knob ("sensitivity vs. specificity") you can adjust it to be more useful for ruling candidates in or ruling them out. For example, it may be able to tell you much more reliably that one person is not the same person as another if they look very different. (E.g., if one has wide-set eyes and high cheekbones and a small mouth, and the other has narrow-set eyes and weak cheekbones and a wide mouth.)

Like most kinds of data you'd troll for, e.g., doing keyword searches in Google, most of what you get back isn't what you're looking for. It just helps you narrow or prioritize your search.

And like most kinds of statistics, it's really easy to lie with---e.g., if you want to claim that somebody looks very much like a terrorist, and don't care which one, you can probably do it with apparent "99.9 percent certainty," because most of us probably look very much like some terrorist or other. :-/

Very handy for reverse targeting.

DBMarch 20, 2014 6:23 PM

@ kashmarek maybe if they didn't stupidly force everyone to turn off their phones in planes, they'd be able to track planes too then via the phones they carry... :)

DBMarch 20, 2014 6:32 PM

To those who are thinking: "I dont want to live in this brave new world"

Suicide is not the answer... let's DO SOMETHING about it instead!

Have you called your congressperson yet today, for example?

YammaMarch 20, 2014 9:10 PM


But what can we do? While I don't want to commit suicide, this has robbed me of much of life's pleasures and I suffer from severe depression and anxiety as a result. I don't want to go through this and I want to go back to an earlier time in history where I could live my life without being tracked and my every word constantly evaluated for criminal intent.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 20, 2014 9:59 PM


Base-rate fallacy, anyone?

Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.

FigureitoutMarch 20, 2014 10:20 PM

--I feel the pain, it's rough adjusting to a police state. I've definitely been thru depression (very bad) and anxiety (felt like I was going to die); still have it everytime I turn the ignition in my car expecting an explosion. My prediction is, even the "rich" will be poor if we continue to let vindictive idiots lead.

I recommend a highly technical subject you like that involves lots of reading/studying, preferably offline but online is so much info. It'll take your mind off it and you have a new skill. Try to get away from a purely urban environment, bring no tech w/ you, camp out; maybe even try to find food/fish. Anytime I go to my dad's farm it's really spiritual (until you hit a hornet's nest lol), I can walk around w/ a shotgun, have huge fires, etc. It's a whiff of the freedom that used to exist back in history.

Normalize basic OPSEC and COMSEC; to the few "noobs" I bring it up to, they joke I'm in CIA, nope just trying to have a private conversation. So long as you aren't slangin' drugs or whatever, who cares if an agent starts to tail you. If so then leave "traps" in the comms to get the evidence and then you can have some fun too. :) Look into digital radio; amongst the million things I want to do before I'm 6 ft. under is a simple tutorial for setting up a digital radio station. Low power, very simple, to the human ears some digital modes sound like music, unintelligible garbage, or just nothing. Exchange OTP's before hand, do a little work decoding messages, and you have pretty secure comms. You can even leave "traps" by using weak encryption on OTP's that are in plain language so it just looks like it's been decrypted.

So I got new intel today, confirmed my worst fears. Bluetooth transceivers at traffic lights sniffing the unique MAC address on your smartphone. US gov't is going to buy them. I have physically confirmed the capability like 3 years ago, which was some research at a nearby university. There are tools to sniff even when you tell it to be "undiscoverable" and bluetooth is going into new cars. So poweroff your cell if traveling and you don't want to be tracked more; I suppose I could develop a jammer someday but I hate bluetooth so much I never use it.

By all means, and no offense to DB, don't just "call your congress critter". That's not doing something, instead organize your own local group to get things done or just do it yourself. If you know what a statehouse or house of congress is like, calling them is just talking to interns, they don't care about the people; so just ignore them.

65535March 21, 2014 1:37 AM

@ Frank

“It's been my experience that Facebook's facial recognition feature often "finds me" in earlier photos of other members of my family (false positives).”

I agree. False positives are a huge problem.

@ Hilbert

“If Facebook can do it, the NSA can do it, too. In a few years, everybody can do it.”

Yes, that is a logical conclusion. It also highlights weaponizing of the internet.

I wonder when this facial recognition system will be misused or even back-fire on the NSA.

I could envision, Putin collecting the photos of the top players in the intelligence community and posting said pictures of intelligence personnel with a bounty. I am sure Putin has a good idea of who to look for and the bounty amount that would bring them down.

Another angle would be to post a racially charged picture of someone, say George Zimmerman, with a bounty. Then “shop” the picture to look like a number of similar intelligence personnel or law enforcement personnel. That could cause a race riot against said intelligence personnel – just what Putin needs at this time.

I am sure there are many permutations to a facial recognition counter offensive operations - kidnappings and extortion. Once you start and electronic arms race it is difficult to stop.

DBMarch 21, 2014 1:43 AM

"Don't call Congress because there's no way that can ever help" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can't stand it when people proclaim that nothing can be done, because nothing will help. Well, sure, nothing will help, when you do nothing, that's circular reasoning... You have to actually do something for it to be useful. Deciding that nothing can be done, and then therefore doing nothing, is part of the problem. You are becoming the problem, instead of the solution.

Lots of things CAN help. Some help very little. Some help much more. Every little bit counts. Let me reiterate: every little bit of help... helps! No matter how small or seemingly insignificant it is... it adds up. It really does. You might decide to spend your time doing things that help more, instead of less, and that's perfectly fine... but don't stop doing anything, that's completely the wrong attitude.

Pestering the interns at the Senator's office may be very small and insignificant, but it does make a difference, especially whenever there's a drive and lots of people swamp them all at once. It's certainly more effective than sending them emails so they can send you form letters back... Visiting in person is even more effective than calling, if you have that opportunity (try to dress and act professionally if you do).

Another thing that helps is being involved in forums and comments online. Find someone online that's got the wrong idea, and argue with him. This does make a difference too, however small and insignificant it may seem (it is not just one person at a time though, remember there are readers you are reaching too).

Another thing I've done is, when I go to the grocery store, and they want that "members card" for that discount, I tell them, "No thanks, I'd rather pay more and not have big brother tracking what I'm buying." People are surprised, and sometimes a discussion ensues... One time the checkout person got really angry at me, it was comical... Another time the next person in line slapped my stuff on their card (I think if that happens again I'll try to stop them, see how that goes)... Be polite though, people listen more when you don't seem too crazy.

Getting away from it all and being out in nature is certainly therapeutic. That's an excellent idea. Also carrying around fewer (or no) "tracking anklet" style gizmos with you is not a bad idea either. If a friend wonders why they can't reach you by phone every second of the day anymore, explain it to them... most people are surprised, and educating people feels good.

It's a long road, a process really. It's not something that can be fixed simply and quickly. But it can be fixed slowly over time, by changing our habits, our attitudes, and our thought processes. It starts with each of us, we can only control ourselves. Once we have a handle on ourselves, then we can help educate others... and from there, over time, it grows into a real movement.

It's a brave new world out there.March 21, 2014 6:28 AM

Brill: "The government's been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the forties. They've infected everything. They get into your bank statements, computer files, email, listen to your phone calls... Every wire, every airwave. The more technology used, the easier it is for them to keep tabs on you. It's a brave new world out there. At least it'd better be." - EOTS

BenniMarch 21, 2014 8:12 AM

New slides coming from snowden, this time with details how TAO targets sys admins

The author of the slides explains in one post that the NSA scours the Internet to find people it deems “probable” administrators, suggesting a lack of certainty in the process and implying that the wrong person could be targeted.

The classified posts reveal how the NSA official aspired to create a database that would function as an international hit list of sys admins to potentially target.

By infiltrating the computers of system administrators who work for foreign phone and Internet companies, the NSA can gain access to the calls and emails that flow over their networks. The NSA wants more than just passwords. The document includes a list of other data that can be harvested from computers belonging to sys admins, including network maps, customer lists, business correspondence and, the author jokes, “pictures of cats in funny poses.".

YammaMarch 21, 2014 8:33 AM


I don't view myself as an active target and I'm not paranoid enough to think that my car might explode. I just have this sense of despair where I shouldn't even bother doing anything the slightest bit controversial for fear that it may come to bite me in the ass someday. I no longer try to learn how hacking works as a hobby(on my own personal setup) for fear of getting profiled by the feds. I fear for learning more about programming in case I already have been profiled by the feds for the hobby work I've done in the past.

John KnoxvilleMarch 21, 2014 9:30 AM

It's amazing how most people don't even consider this a threat. Someone needs to do an expose on the UK's camera system and show how it detects (and supposedly prevents) crime.

WinterMarch 21, 2014 9:38 AM

@Yamma/Figureitout etc

I do not understand you. Equivalent to these digital and online intrusions, there is no way we can fortify our brick houses in such a way that we can keep out bad guys, the police, the army, unwanted relatives, and whatever.

That is not a problem. We solved that by organizing the police and courts to make sure they will protect our houses and round up those that even try to break in.

It is not perfect, but it works, and over here, the police will think several times before they will enter my house without my consent. And if the do, I can resort to the courts that are generally unsympathetic to cops breaking into houses without due course.

To me, the solution to all these Snowden revelations and Facebook/Google intrusions are that the police (NSA?) will have to be instructed (i.e., forced) to protect us against intrusions, instead of being the bad guys.

This has been done before when the protection of private property were made an explicit job for the police. It should be done again for our digital privacy.

@YammaMarch 21, 2014 9:38 AM

" fear of getting profiled by the feds."

I am an immigrant to the US, I arrived at what in retrospect turned out to be an 'interesting' time - the end of 2000. I have provided details of my parent's lives, every school I attended, every place I lived since the age of 5, had the medical, been poked and prodded, provided fingerprints, more fingerprints, more fingerprints, been picked over by the FBI (background checks), etc etc Well you get the picture. They don't frighten me. Go about your life. They already have your DNA if they want it, they already know a great deal about you but possibly less than Amazon or Walmart. I'm a software developer, probably on some list somewhere, or multiple lists. I've never seen a black helicopter as I walk out the door but maybe there's a drone 1500m away filming me as I walk to the local park. I don't care. They're the paranoid ones, not me. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself. Yes it's all distasteful, abhorrent, and the future looks unpleasant at this point, but they want to grind you down. Don't let them.

vas pupMarch 21, 2014 10:19 AM

@Daniel. Thank you for the link on emotion recognition. It has huge positive and 'negative' potential of applications as any technology.
E.g. on positive side: with recent plane 370 disappearance. You may have video camera with such capability pointed to the pilot (or any person with critical functions in a military, LEA, Intel, etc.) which may trigger alarm (to other pilot, flight attendant, security on board outside the cockpit, to air traffic controller) when scanned emotional state is close to the threshold of possibility of undesired actions.
E.g. on negative side: usage by job interviewer or for lie detection because in that case it may be triggered by stressful process itself, and did not imply either being not fit to particular position or being untruthful. It could be used in concert with other tools, and first of all analytical skills of interviewer.

SkepticalMarch 21, 2014 10:55 AM

To give a different view, this is not all negative.

Such a capability would allow faster identification of those caught on camera committing criminal acts;

It would allow faster identification of missing persons caught on camera, enabling quicker rescues of kidnapped persons, and those who are lost/disoriented due to mental illness, disease, injury, or age;

Both of these things would result in a significant number of lives saved, and prevented injuries and crimes.

As with all things that increase the capability of government organizations, this can be a net positive or a net negative depending on the society you live in and the type of government organizations you have.

If you live in a police state (sorry, the US doesn't qualify), then this is likely a net negative. If you live in a fairly open society with strong protections for civil liberties and oversight, then this is likely a net positive.

There are also the implications of private actors having this capability to consider, of course, which could alter the sign of the net result. But since the focus of the comments was on the government, I focused on that as well.

YeahSureMarch 21, 2014 11:07 AM

@ Skeptical

OK, I'll bite. If the US is not a police state, what attributes define a police state? I don't mean pointing fingers elsewhere, I mean, what could the US govt do that would cause you to consider the US a police state?

Nick PMarch 21, 2014 11:13 AM

I figure I should repost this here:

I pointed out that the new advances in deep neural nets would definitely have applications with data mining for commercial and intelligence. This recent tech is both a confirmation of that and another step in the tech's evolution. The research from DARPA, Google, IBM, and elite R&D groups should lead to more surprises down the line.

Others ask "How will they use it?" People, we've already seen how they use facial recognition. They even profiled people who weren't Facebook users because they appeared in user's photographs.

Also, given their business model, expect them to license this tech out. They might let people use the tech for new applications like license plate recognition, manufacturing, data mining, etc. They might also partner with other Big Data companies to integrate databases. As in, they'll share their tech with the other companies to get those companies' data and integrate them with Facebooks own data. I'm sure there's potential with such arrangements to up ad revenue or profiles of users.

David EisnerMarch 21, 2014 11:24 AM

Speaking of facial recognition software and law enforcement, I thought this story would get more attention:

Decades after escaping Fort Leavenworth, killer back in custody

"In the nearly 40 years after he escaped from the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, convicted killer James Robert Jones carved out a new life for himself in Florida, living under an assumed name, getting married and working for an air conditioning company.

It all came to an end this week when Jones - or Bruce Walter Keith, as the former Army private was known in Florida - was recaptured with the help of technology that was more sci-fi than reality when he broke out during the disco era: facial-recognition software.

Authorities used facial recognition technology to identify Jones, who was living in Deerfield Beach, some 17 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, under the name Bruce Walter Keith. Authorities matched an old military photograph of Jones with a Florida driver’s license issued in 1981 in Keith’s name."

FigureitoutMarch 21, 2014 11:27 AM

"Don't call Congress because there's no way that can ever help" is a self-fulfilling prophecy
--No it isn't it's the harsh truth that it's a waste of time. I said don't do that. I agree w/ everything else you say but not that. If you want to pester interns that have no influence and didn't cause the situation we find ourselves in then I say physically go into the senator's office and scream then get arrested.

I no longer try to learn how hacking works as a hobby
--No, don't stop. You're hurting your own enlightenment and maybe discovering a new possibility no one else thought of. You have to beat the depression yourself, it's a lifelong battle but you have to mentally beat that. I have my fights w/ irrational anxiety like being blown up by spiteful agents.

--I think there is a way; at the very least make it a MAD game where nobody wins. I'm tired of waiting on the courts and the justice system to right these wrongs. Otherwise evil people continue to run over everyone w/ no one stopping them.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 21, 2014 11:43 AM


I'm certainly more worried about the US government having this capacity than you are.

I guess I sorta agree that the US does not qualify as a "police state," if I have to say yes or no, but I don't think that's how it works. It's a matter of degree, and a slippery slope, and lines need to be drawn and enforced.

The US government is systematically corrupt---not extremely corrupt, like (say) Russia's governments, but plenty corrupt enough that it's a serious problem.

The way we finance political campaigns is IMO a bigger problem than surveillance is at present, with the 1 percent and the .001 percent having way too much political power, but that makes it all the more important to keep the surveillance state in check.

Power tends to get in bed with power, and the combination of a huge and largely privatized Military-Industrial Complex with politicians being bought and sold is scary as hell.

Everyone should be worried that our oversight committee members get a bunch more campaign money from defense contractors than other congresspeople, or that defense contractor money is used to buy political power at all. (We should be worried about telecom and tech company and entertainment/IP money, too. The whole situation is patently ridiculous.)

I think it's inevitable that pervasive surveillance will be abused sometimes, even if it's used for more or less legitimate crime-fighting purposes 99 percent of the time.

The possible consequences of abusing power one percent of the time are enormous.

When we have secret courts saying that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is classified information we can't afford to reveal because terrorists could take advantage of it, we have a serious problem.

And make no mistake, we have exactly that problem already---that's what it means to say that the Fourth Amendment doesn't mean what it looks like it means, and to keep what it really means secret, and to covertly act on that secret interpretation.

The US government has effectively repealed the fourth amendment and replaced it with a conveniently weakened one, in secret.

That sounds a lot like a police state to me. Maybe they're not behaving like a typical police state in most other respects most of the time, but they've certainly doing some police state kinds of things, now, and making it easier to do a lot more in the future, whether that's their intention or not.

They're building the kind of legal and technical infrastructure that's ripe for massive abuse by people with enemies lists.

Our legal checks and balances didn't keep the CIA from helping Nixon's "Plumbers," or prevent kidnapping and torture by Bush II, or keep us from getting into a war for oil that the CIA told us was about weapons of mass destruction.

Now you want to give those kinds of people better infrastructure for a police state than the Stasi could dream of, and trust them not to abuse it, even decades down the road when some future lunatic or sociopath gets elected?

That's just stupid.

vas pupMarch 21, 2014 12:06 PM

@KnotW: "or keep us from getting into a war for oil that the CIA told us was about weapons of mass destruction." Sorry, Knot, but I have other angle of view on that. Decision was made BEFORE and regardless of CIA input. I am sure that CIA provided all spectrum of information: pro and contra, but only pro-invasion information was taking into agenda as pretext for invasion. Absence of WMD was also confirmed by independent international inspection before invasion. Iraq invasion was irresponsible act border with criminal act. That is sad when political decision is made before Intel provided and regardless of it. It negatively affects professional self-image of Intel people as disposal scapegoat and demoralize them (put aside all other negative results not related to this respected forum).

KnottWhittingleyMarch 21, 2014 12:46 PM

vas pup,

I entirely agree that the decision to go to war in Iraq was made before and regardless of CIA input.

What I mean is that the CIA abdicated its responsibility to tell the truth to Congress and the public, which is supposed to be a check on executive overreach, and instead said what Bush and Cheney wanted them to say.

That's why it illustrates what I was saying---the checks and balances are clearly insufficient. Given that the CIA got away with it and other abuses---a lot of people got promoted rather than fired over that or over kidnapping and torture---we should not trust the intelligence community any further than we can throw it.

YeahSureMarch 21, 2014 6:05 PM

@ Vas Pup

I am not asking what a police state is. I am challenging Skeptical to come up with criteria for a police state that includes all the countries he deplores, while not including the US. I don't think it's possible. The US spends all of its time condemning other countries for what it does itself. Given an abstract description of government actions -- one that doesn't give away the country by incidentals -- I don't think anyone could successfully distinguish our actions from those of the countries we abhor.

It is American exceptionalism: Any action is acceptable for ourselves and our allies even while we condemn the same action in others.

If if someone thinks that is not true: Tell me what hypothetical US actions they would be willing to condemn.

Skeptical and his ilk are intellectually bankrupt. And this is a clear demonstration of that.

Sancho_PMarch 21, 2014 6:48 PM

“I wonder when this facial recognition system will be misused or even back-fire on the NSA.”

It already does.
If you had to send spooks (or other “specialized agents”) on various undercover missions to any destination that probably uses facial recognition you’d be very concerned.
For years I was traveling with different passports and personality, to avoid visa and other “friendly” restrictions of some countries (as a technician, of course).
Biometrical ID?
Game over.

Facial recognition alone isn’t evil.
Evil is to connect “the dots” and (ab)use the result, a mixture of true “intelligence” and mistakes.
As history proved, databases will be lost, leaked, hacked or simply sold.
This is inevitable, on a smaller or larger scale, whether it’s government or their private contractors.

The dots will end up in a kind of “foam factor” (think of beer), similar to the spam score with emails.
To increase your “foam factor” simply oppose whatever is considered “right” in the sense of the authorities,
e.g. by attending a protest march, sit in, or be a bystander, often switch off your mobile, use encryption, use Tor, speak out in public, engage in forums or social media, send messages to your congressman, speak out loudly to neighbors and “friends”, or even to relatives.
(geeeh, the latter reminds me to the GDR, where I as a non - German was allowed to work several times before the iron curtain fell).

Imagine your application would be (silently of course ! ) rejected from a certain university, or government position (or an advance there). Your company may not get the desired contract until your boss learns why and flushes you down the toilet. You may be courteously treated by TSA personnel, not granted a visa, a.s.f.

And you wouldn’t know about, because it’s TOP SECRET (to you only) and Ed Snowden will be still in Moscow.

My unqualified guess: Today they are not ready to connect the dots from all of us.
But yes, it may bite you sometimes if we can’t stop them.
So if you (feel to) depend on them:
Keep quiet, but don’t forget your ideals: Your day will come to speak out.
In the meantime you are protected by the masses, no hassles.

This is why I favor Bruce’s political approach:
Technics is never a solution, only a medium, or a workaround.

Don’t get me wrong, I admit that collecting the dots would have some net positives.
The question is: Can we afford them?

“Skeptical and his ilk …”
are about 70% of the US population, in a democracy, the majority is always “right”, not i.b. … ?

Coyne TibbetsMarch 22, 2014 12:13 AM

@Skeptical: If only they would limit it to criminals. But this is how it will be used: At every video camera, every person that passes into its view will be identified. Then their presence will be logged with date and time, video, list of companions,anything they can be seen to be carrying, their emotional state, any activities they might be performing while passing by, everyone who preceded or followed them in the same direction, and anyone they pass who is sitting or going the other direction.

That will be kept forever...or at least until each individual proves they are not a criminal.

You know the saying: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about." But if you insist on your civil rights, then you must have something to hide. In government parlance, "something to hide" means criminality. So, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about," really means, "If you insist on your civil rights, you are a criminal."

That's the new norm, and facial recognition fits right in. The government will apply facial recognition to anyone and everyone. Should you object, then obviously you are a criminal. Now that you know who the criminals are, enjoy the prying eyes.

YeahSureMarch 22, 2014 11:31 AM

“Skeptical and his ilk …”
are about 70% of the US population, in a democracy, the majority is always “right”, not i.b. …

Obviously, being in the majority doesn't make one right. It has little to do with being intellectually bankrupt or not. In a theoretical democracy, yes, the majority is supposed to decide what a government does, but in most real world democracies there are certain principals, like the Bill of Rights, that require an extreme supermajority to override. As it should be.

Moral principals are principals that are applied without bias, that one would uphold for everyone regardless of what role we ourselves play in a situation. If overthrowing governments one dislikes is wrong for Russia, than it is wrong for the US. If theft is wrong for you, it is wrong for me. etc. I say skeptical and his ilk are bankrupt not because nobody agrees with them, not because they are unintelligent, but simply because their arguments are special pleading that the US has a right to do what we tell others not to do. Perhaps I should have said morally bankrupt, in the sense that such a bias makes moral reasoning impossible.

As far as 70% of Americans supporting this craziness, that number is going down fast. Eventually people catch on that they are being screwed and lied to. Why else do politicians need to put a blanket of secrecy over everything that goes on, why else do they have to intimidate those who dissent with surveillance, by treating peaceful protestors like Occupy as terrorists, if they don't know that the truth will bring them down? Americans are proud of their freedoms and ultimately I believe they will stand for them.

SkepticalMarch 22, 2014 3:51 PM

@YeahSure: I am challenging Skeptical to come up with criteria for a police state that includes all the countries he deplores, while not including the US. I don't think it's possible.


(1) The systematic and brutal suppression of any speech critical of the government;
(2) the systematic and brutal suppression of any actions or organizations formed in opposition to a group or person in power;
(3) the blanket monitoring of all activities and words of individuals for indications of (1) or (2); and
(4) the complete identification of executive pronouncement or action with the law

are the hallmarks of a police state. If you live in a country like that, good facial recognition software is not a net positive.

It is American exceptionalism: Any action is acceptable for ourselves and our allies even while we condemn the same action in others.

That's not what the term "American exceptionalism" means, nor frankly do I know of anyone who follows the proposition you set out here. Nor does this have much to do with subject under discussion in the thread.

@KnottWhittingly: I think it's inevitable that pervasive surveillance will be abused sometimes, even if it's used for more or less legitimate crime-fighting purposes 99 percent of the time. The possible consequences of abusing power one percent of the time are enormous.

I'm not sure we can use units of time to determine how frequently, or how significantly, power is abused. Some abuses of power are more serious than others, no doubt. If we're talking about a 1% rate of abuse that involves police officers giving friends and family breaks on traffic and parking tickets, then this is a problem, but less serious than that involved if the 1% included murders of reporters and political opponents.

Protecting against those types of government abuses doesn't really have much to do with whether government can or cannot use a computer to identify someone in an image.

In fact, frankly more video coverage of public areas can reduce some of the more terrifying kinds of abuse of power (e.g. a corrupt police officer confronting you alone somewhere), because ultimately the corrupt officials cannot rely on "my word against yours" any more.

Indeed, one of the measures often introduced to reduce police corruption or abuse is required video-recording of all encounters.

RoxanneMarch 23, 2014 5:29 AM

When I uploaded a vacation photo - completely untagged - to FB back in August, FB helpfully tagged everyone in the photo who was in my FL. That was creepy.

I have had dreams (mostly related, I think, to my increasing lack of ability to attach names to faces quickly) of wearing something like Google Glass and it's popping up names of people as I'm passing them in the hall - doing what my brain is failing at. I think this is technology that's already there, just not deployed. Well, not openly.

I daresay the TSA could just force us into a single line, and not need the whole interview and baggage-scanning procedure, and run it at fast walking speed. Yep, we know who you are and where you're going; have a nice day. Whether that's good or bad... hmm.

vas pupMarch 24, 2014 10:09 AM

@YeahSure and @ Skeptical.
I got your points on discussion.
My vision of 'exceptionalism' does NOT incorporate this:"Any action is acceptable for ourselves and our allies even while we condemn the same action in others". I agree with YeahSure on that, because that is application of 'soft police state' paradigm: "For friends everything for others - Law" in international relations. History proved - that is counterproductive path in a long-term prospective even sometimes gives short-term (rather illusionary) benefits. For me American 'exceptionalism' = great achievements in science, in postgraduate education, intellectual property protection and as result opportunities (founders of Google, Facebook,
other businesses based on the merits of their founders). On the other hand, other countries have their own 'exceptionalism' based on their health care (e.g. Sweden - we are on the 27th place in the world), high school education (Finland), prison system (e.g. Norway) and so on. Conclusion: to be exceptional - you should occupy the first line in particular nomination, but I doubt existence of universal 'exceptionalism' for any nation/country in the world (just my own opinion).
There is no digital thinking in definition of police state. I could say there is continuum between 'law-guided' state and 'police state'.
Law-guided state could be police state as well as Nazi Germany followed their immoral Laws very precisely. Then, what most of us want is law-guided state with rule of moral Laws, with respect to Bill of Right and the rest of Constitutional provisions, unbiased non-Kafka Courts, non-1984 environment to live in, elected officials with open ears to listen to the constituents through unfiltered channels, respect of other countries based on UN Charter applied uniformly regardless of the size of the country or oil resources in their possession, you name it. Police state could be of different level of brutality ('hard' police state: no laws or immoral laws with human rights violation as day-by-day practice and 'soft' police state with selective application of 'accordeon' laws which let LEA /prosecutors/courts apply law selectively).
And you should always select base line for comparison. If base line is North Korea, then almost all other countries are NOT police states, but if base line is Iceland or Netherlands or Sweden or Norway, etc. you'll get substantially different picture.

GabdamuoeMarch 25, 2014 1:09 PM


. So long as you aren't slangin' drugs or whatever,

That's not the point of his post. It's precisely what you've dismissed at the end of that sentence - he *cares* that he's may be watched; that's he is probably watched. That one is a pressing feeling, verily.

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