What are the emerging opportunities and ethics of new facial recognition technology?

What are the emerging opportunities and ethics of new facial recognition technology? Contactless biometric authentication equals safe, seamless travel but we shouldn’t ignore the ethical aspects

After landing at Luxembourg Airport, the jetlagged passenger sighs, bracing himself for a lengthy wait in the queue for passport control. But, much to his delight, less than 14 seconds later he’s already passed through the automated border control gate.

He isn’t the only passenger in for a pleasant surprise once travel restrictions are lifted. While COVID-19 constraints have kept passengers at home, the world’s airports have been busy installing facial biometric procedures to reduce processing times and make border control procedures secure and seamless, primed for an anticipated increase in passengers in the months ahead. What’s more, automated contactless procedures mean individuals can be identified and verified quickly, without the need for any physical interaction.

So, what do the various terms for facial biometric technology mean? Facial recognition is an umbrella term used to identify a person using their facial features. Under this term it is important to distinguish between facial verification and facial identification. While facial verification involves comparing that person’s image against another reference, such as a passport and is only made with the consent of the person; facial identification is when one image is checked against multiple sources, which is used, for example, during profiling on the streets or in specific environments through surveillance cameras.

The different faces of inclusion

New sophisticated facial recognition techniques are being introduced all the time and improving the technology’s accuracy - allowing it to incorporate different facial expressions, for instance. But as techniques improve, more questions arise about privacy and ethics. By 2025, the tentatively planned new standard on biometrics in passports will also allow storage of more biometric information; potentially enabling more facial recognition use cases in the future.

Inclusion remains a big issue. A key issue is that the algorithms, mainly AI and machine-learning types, can have a bias, where, for example, recognition rates for white males are higher than for black females. Thankfully, biometric algorithms are constantly being improved and trained to operate perfectly, no matter the skin color, gender or facial type.

It’s vital for regulation to keep up with the pace of rapidly developing technology. For example, the EU is currently creating an eIDAS compatible European Self-Sovereign Identity Framework (ESSIF)[1], which enables users to own their identity data without intervention from any centralized authority.


D4FLY takes off

Moreover, an EU-funded research and innovation project, D4FLY (Detecting Document frauD and iDentity on the fly) aims to make border control faster and safer. The Veridos-led project examines techniques to make verification more secure and less time-consuming for travelers while reducing the threat of forgery or fraud. It includes topics such as research on 3D facial and iris verification technology and the use of smartphones for traveler verification.

The project envisions a process for which travelers voluntarily enroll. The data captured during the border crossing process is compared with previously captured reference data, thereby allowing the traveler to be verified without needing to stop at a border guard booth. Reference data is stored securely (encrypted) and controlled by the traveler using his or her smartphone app. The data captured during verification is then deleted after the verification process.

Regardless of how sophisticated biometric technology becomes, privacy, security and data protection must play an integral role in their design. At the same time, governments must also comply with high standards and inform the general public how their data may be used. Veridos provides state-of-the-art verification technologies for different scenarios such as border control or eGovernment services and helps governments accelerate identity verification processes while maintaining the highest levels of security and compliance.    

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[1] "eIDAS supported self-sovereign identity", European Commission, 2019

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