Photographs played many roles in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings: They were used as news, as support and even in finding the suspects. FBI asked the public for help in identifying the two suspects, later identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, from pixilated photos and videos. People still seem to be better tools when it comes to recognition than computers. But how far is technology off?
Currently, best results come from quality pictures — where faces aren’t pixilated messes. And best results also come from having enough samples in the identity databases used. As for quality, people are already working on it:
With funding from the FBI, Jain at Michigan State is working on software for matching faces from low quality surveillance video against existing image databases. Another project is developing a system that can search a database of faces for a match with a sketch drawn by a forensic artist or a partial or outdated photo.
Other researchers are testing more fundamental rethinks of facial recognition algorithms. Marios Savvides, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon and director of its Cylab Biometrics Center, has developed technology that can create an accurate high-resolution image of a face from a poor resolution one, and which can correct for faces turned partly away from the camera.—Tom Simonite/MIT Technology Review
And for the identity databases, there’s an obvious answer: social media. Many social media users willingly give up everything—where they are, what they’re thinking, feeling, eating, and plenty of photos. Facebook already uses the information for advertising—and keeps improving how they do it. Who really doubts it will be used for crime fighting or surveillance?
It’s only a matter of time now before the technology catches up. In the mean time, questions should be raised to prevent problems. How will we avoid errors leading into a witch-hunt? Will the new technology be the realization of 1984? What information is safe? Should I delete my Facebook account? Again?