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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100 posts and a beer

No, not a reward for finally finishing painting the fence (that’s a little way off, yet, though progress is indeed a little in evidence in the photo below) but in honour of this, my 100th post since establishing The Back Room. I started this particular blog in October 2016 and so, 92 weeks later, I’ve managed to produce at the rate of about 1 post per week which, given that early days were spent writing quite a lot of material to allow it to hit the ground running, as opposed to embodying a forlorn and somewhat empty-looking single post or two, is not exactly Stakhanovite. A little more needs to be done there, I think.

Many of my more astute readers will have picked up that a lot of my post titles have a (quite deliberately, and stretched in only a few cases) musical connection so, in celebration, I added up how many. (Some sort of answer below.)

In the meantime, and also in honour of the recently passed second anniversary of my coming to live on these islands, I thought I’d toast the last 100 posts and look forward to the next one with a bottle of homebrew: actually, the last remaining bottle of the first batch (of five surviving) I made. This was really quite a good beer – dry, citrusy and hoppy, gently carbonated, a rich golden colour and with a decent and lingering head, and finish: or, at least, the top half was, the bottom half being sediment-heavy and, once added to the glass, making the whole closer in style and appearance to a German hefeweizen than a true IPA. I do need to do something about the sediment next time as it changes the character and taste of the beer completely and I’m not entirely sure I’m such a fan of murk. Not yet, anyway. (Though I’d also be happy to go the whole hog and start brewing hefeweizen, too.) In taste, the closest match I can recall from my efforts is to a Brewdog Dead Pony Club – although that ought not to be the case since this is an American Pale Ale and, being more of a session ale, a little lower in alcohol content than my fairly heady brew. Knowing neither the hop content nor the malt mix involved in my brew, the reasons why will have to remain a mystery for now until I gain a bit more confidence with the basics and start developing my own sources of malt and hops.

But, all in all, a decent start. So, here’s to the next batch – both of beers and, of course, of posts, too.

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It’s 15. (Judge’s decision is final.)

Tales of the Back Room…

… When I were a lad, Christmas Day afternoons would see us go regularly to Nan and Grandad’s – Dad’s Mum and Dad – who lived in a large house on the main Reading-Wokingham road in Winnersh. Dad’s brothers and sisters, and their children – our cousins – would be there; we would be dressed in our new clothes and we would take, and show off, our new toys. Father Christmas visited us there, too: one year, probably round about 1970, driving himself along the A329 Reading-Wokingham road in a horse and cart, with word of his impending arrival, and at our house, gradually spreading from humour-ridden mums and dads, not sure how much longer, or even whether, they should keep the secret, to increasingly-excited children. There would be plenty of food, plenty of play, the TV; and the times would be good.

Later, the men of the family would gather with a few, male neighbours and retreat from the women and the children into the speakeasy sanctity of the back room of the house, adjacent to the kitchen, for unknown games of cards, probably more than a few smokes and, for all I knew, more than a few beers. Despite visiting the house frequently, and not just on special occasions, I have almost no memory of that back room, neither its decor, nor its aspect nor its furniture – of the kitchen, absolutely; and yes of the front room too, perhaps unusually so in families where the front room tended to be kept for weddings, christenings and funerals. But of the back room, I remember next to nothing. On these particular Boxing Day occasions, the door to the back room was shut. And it stayed shut; we were not allowed in and I, who pretty much always did precisely as he was told, stayed out. For all the mums, my sister and me, and all our cousins, the rest of the house, and the front room, was our domain where we were kept entertained, or at least humoured, with bowls of peanuts, lemonade and coca-cola. And, most probably, with threats of the strict and dire consequences that would befall us were we to break the rules.

Until, eventually, a few cousins, a little braver than I when it came to family authority figures, would seek to gain entry to the back room; initially being chased back out before, towards the end of the evening, when the men’s business was finished and the games of cards had, mostly, been cleared away, the men relented, smiled and we were no longer chased out. Then the evening would dissolve and we would all head back home, Christmas over for another year and, for the men, a prospective return to work based substantially around a life of tough manual labour doing the providing; for the women, a continuation of substantially domestic duties and responsibilities; and for the children, life would carry on in absolute innocence of the significance of what was going on around us or of what we had done, or failed to do; and the moulding of the self that went alongside that.

So: the back room: a place of seriousness, but where masks can be worn (indeed, perhaps should be worn); one of talk, but also good humour; where not everything is believable but where a grain of truth underpins everything; one where alliances are formed and deals made; and where peace is brokered; where hands are revealed at regular intervals, and strategies and thoughts regularly explained, justified and given new weight. A place of honesty. An adult room to which entry can be gained, with patience and then persistence, by those prepared to undertake the rites of passage required of that entry or with the tools to break down those barriers.

Welcome to The Back Room.