Thursday, October 26, 2006

What about ugly people ?

Another one of those "Tomorrows World" stylee predictions this morning from "The Authorities", predicts that we will soon be throwing away our keys, cards, passports and PIN's because computers everywhere will be able to recognise our faces.


I know that technology makes impressive improvements as time goes by, but I've been involved in biometrics at the sharp end (ie the consumer end) for some years now as part of my job - and it sucks.

Let me explain - my company sells time recording equipment - clocking-on clocks in common parlance - and about 50% of our turnover is with the high-end stuff, pc-linked clocking terminals that, in the main, gather the employees attendance by means of a swipe card, usually mag-stripe.

Mag-stripe cards aren't cutting edge technology, but they are cheap and they bloody work, well they work if they are of a good enough quality not to be affected by magnetic handbag clasps, but still, they work - so-called smart cards are good too, although double the cost, bu they too work extremely well and in the market that we are in these two methods of recording data are reliable and are the method of choice.

Seven or eight years ago one of our suppliers introduced a fingerprint reader into their clocking terminals - it worked inconjunction with a "swipe card" and was there as a backup to confirm that the person swiping the card was indeeed the same person that you had issued the card to.

Sounds reasonable, and it solved the problem that has always existed of "buddy punching" (awful american term) where you get a friend to clock you in while you take the day off. Problem was that while the fingerprint reader was accurate it was slow and it meant that instead of simply swiping a card each employee had to wait while their fingerprint was verified - it doubled, sometimes trebled the amount of time that each person took to log in and at one minute to eight in a morning with fifty people stood in the queue waiting to "clock in" you can only imagine the stress that it caused.

We installed several of these fingerprint readers and within a few months all of them had been vandalised - no-one had ever vandalised a bog-standard mag-stripe terminal.

Shortly afterwards I was approached by a company who had a brilliant new idea to verify each and every employee as they "clocked in" - facial recognition software.

We were sceptical - they came to see us and set up their laptop and a tripod mounted camera in our workshop. They took my photograph three times and stored it in their database then explained that the software would compare my video image to each of these three records of me every time I swiped my card at the clocking terminal - sounded good.

I stood in front of the clock, swiped the card, it was rejected.

They fiddled with the camera a bit, I tried again, I was rejected, the computer said it wasn't me.

They fiddled with the computer a bit, checked my card, I tried again, computer said it definitely wasn't me, I was my own imposter.

They started looking at the lighting in the workshop, we had lights above the bench and above but behind my head - it was decided that there was too much of a shadow on my face, we arranged the lighting so that there was no shadow, I was still an imposter according to the computer.

Eventually we stood a spotlight directly in front of me, shining straight onto my face, we took three more photos of me for the database and tried again - the computer recognised me - hurray.

The rep acknowledged that there were "teething problems" and in a commercial situation in a dark, dirty factory they envisaged that they would need to build a photo booth at the works entrance so that the lighting and employee positioning in relation to the camera cold be strictly controlled - we thanked him and sent him on his way.

And so today on GMTV the same topic was raised in relation to passports and facial recognition data encoded into the new style EU passports, and once again the problem was raised of having a good enough photograph, full face, staring straight at the camera, no spectacles, properly illuminated, not smiling, eyes straight forward, no hat, no teeth visible, no other part of the body visible - and why ?

Simply to save a human looking at the passport photo when you enter a country.

All in the name of "security" - we do not trust a human immigration officer to check passports anymore and prefer a computer to do the job for us - a computer that can't recognise you if the light is not good enough.

Is it just me that thinks this is a little bizarre ?

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