Facial recognition technology: a personal story

A quick check to the photo on the left would confirm – were it to be required – that I have spectacles. I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old when my class teacher, (a Mrs Whitehead, I believe, though I might be wrong about that) quite astutely realised that I couldn’t see the blackboard, and told my Mum. (With nothing to compare it with, how was I to know that not being able to see the board wasn’t the default position for everyone?)

So, I’ve worn glasses for nigh-on fifty years, and they are a part of me. ‘Twas not always thus: the silent movies of Harold Lloyd (motto: A pair of glasses and a smile) did much to habilitate me to the things in front of my face. These days, not only do they frame my face, they also frame a major part of my identity: I look in the mirror and I see me, in glasses (I am unable to see me, without!); furthermore, I am who I am in no small measure because I wear glasses: when I was young, a fear of breaking them, and shards going into my eye, or my parents having to contribute some of their very hard-earned cash to replace broken ones (most NHS specs were not free, even in those days), which happened on more than one occasion, were quite a major part of my growing up in some of my very formative years.

Without my glasses, I don’t see very well, being acutely short-sighted and with age yet to do its thing and start correcting it. Consequently, in front of strangers, even ones who mean no harm, I do feel vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my house was once, a long time ago, broken into and my glasses taken off my face and broken by the intruders. My glasses are me and I’d be no more without glasses in front of strangers than I would any other item of clothing.

This is not a post about my passport photo which, taken in the last few years, shows me without glasses on the grounds that glasses were not ‘approved’ (Ali Smith has a funny, and all too familiar, extemporisation on this theme in ‘Autumn‘). But it is linked.

The introduction of new technology in airports takes on a number of guises, one of which is the automation of security control barriers. Here, you are supposed to stand (absolutely squarely) on rough outlines of feet on the floor and stare at a post which takes your picture. Aside of the intrusive aspect of this, and those which raise all kinds of data protection and civil liberties issues, it doesn’t work for people who wear glasses: light flashing off the glass, apparently, confuses the technology (quite why, when cameras, including on mobile phones, are quite used to dealing with this, is a different matter).

‘Take your glasses off, sir,’ is the call when red lights flash and I have to seek assistance at the gate into security.

‘I can’t,’ say I, by now quite practised at this charade and also quite genuine in my objections. ‘You need technology that works and, if I have to deny my identity, your technology doesn’t work.’

This time, just yesterday, having this debate with the officer on duty, at a major airport in the London area, who manually checked my documents and waved me through. The added twist this time was the expressed thought that glasses – and, by implication, my own – could be used to disguise identities.

Coming eventually to the gate for my domestic flight to Edinburgh, I find similar technology and, putting my bar code face down on the glass, I am confronted again with red lights and a familiar, and growing, sense of helplessness. I again have the conversation with the airline staff at the gate about the vagaries of their applications of technology and that, no, I am not taking my glasses off.

Checking my details takes some time and everyone else has gone through by the time the gate staff tell me that the person they have a photo of on their screen isn’t me.

Bidden, I take a look. The horrendous head and shoulders caricature I see on the screen before me in a peculiarly detailed black and white x-ray style photo, distorted and twisted, with my head apparently bigger than my body, arms flowing from shoulders in an oddly-shaped way, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu, even I don’t recognise as me.

‘We can’t let you board the flight, sir’,’ say the gate staff, ‘ Your biometrics don’t match up with our records.’

And indeed they don’t let me on. Amidst the course of several conversations about the whys and wherefores of this, the security implications for those on my flight as well as another, unknown, one on which this apparent stranger is booked, and not least the implications for my later flight out of Edinburgh to Gdansk, my plane is backed away from the stand. It appears to all, including myself, that someone else’s picture has become associated on their systems with my boarding pass. I have been denied boarding, and through absolutely no fault of my own.

Resolution appears in the form of senior staff, who have the ability to call up what seems to be a higher resolution, albeit still peculiarly negative, photo. ‘That is him,’ says one, to the doubts of others. ‘Sir, is this you?’

A second, more sustained look at this second photo gives me pause for thought. It does seem to be me – the coat (critically by now in my carry-on bag) but framing me in the photo is the same and I have a button-through shirt, although I don’t appear to be wearing my glasses. Nosferatu has, however, been replaced by a figure a little closer to something I would recognise as myself. ‘Yes,’ I think out loud, ‘It might well be me.’ Too late, of course: my flight has long gone.

Photo retaken, manually, glasses still on, by one of the senior staff and I’m free to go away and stress with others about my chances of catching the next flight and whether it gets me there in time to catch my connection. (A side note: even these new photos still don’t trigger the gate barriers when I try and use them to board the next flight.)

As to where this earlier photo came from – who knows? Ignoring conspiracy theories, it can only have come from photos that were taken at the gate into security but which, however, were for some reason insufficient to let me pass through.

Ostensibly, of course, the photo is there to capture an image of people so that boarding cards can’t be swapped once people are air-side, although it seems to me that a stage is being jumped and that some form of retina recognition is already being implemented. This raises a few other issues, including that this – if true – is not being as widely publicised as civil liberties indicates it ought. More generally, however:

1. A technology that requires people not to be wearing glasses is not a functional one. There are quite a lot of us who wear glasses. Most people might be comfortable doing as instructed and taking off their glasses; unfortunately, I’m really not one of them.

2. To be useable, a technology has to do the job required of it. A technology which seems to be capable only of producing such a poor quality image, and which is dubious even at higher resolution, is simply not doing the job required when, at least on the surface, much better and more useable technologies are available.

3. And it has to be easy to use. A photo that even the subject himself can not recognise, still less hard-pressed gate staff with a really important, front-line job to do in the security of all of us, and with only seconds or less to spare per passenger, is not useable. People with glasses frequently look a lot different without them.

Time for a re-think, HAA?

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6 thoughts on “Facial recognition technology: a personal story

  1. it is interesting, looking back at one’s childhood memories and wondering how much of them are blurred by the mists of time or simply because one couldn’t see clearly more than 6 inches in front of one’s face!! Surely by 7 years old, you would have been beyond the tender ministrations (!) of Mrs. Whitehead, who certainly taught me from the very beginning and were, perhaps, being instructed by Mrs. Carter or maybe even Mrs. Nyss? There was another lady too, Mrs. Palmer, maybe?

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    1. Yes, Mrs. Whitehead looked after the first years, didn’t she? And I know you didn’t get on too well in her class as Mum had already done her job, more or less! Mrs Nyss was the top class so it was someone in the middle. Could have been Mrs. Carter, I guess: I remember her as a kindly lady who played the piano…

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  2. If I remember correctly, it was Mrs Nyss who first spoke to me about you not being able to see the board. She took the class above reception which was Mrs Whitehead but I cannot remember the name of the teacher who took the next class up. Mrs Carter was that kindly lady about which you spoke but I believe she was the first teacher when you had after Mrs Nyss. I also cannot remember the name of the teacher who took Tracy’s class but I know she lived in Twyford and I can see her face now but no name comes to me, the subject of advancing years maybe!

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  3. I don’t remember a Mrs Palmer as mentioned by Tracy or a Mrs Stone, or indeed a Miss Ford – again advancing years clouding (or indeed blocking out!) one’s memory.

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