Hollywood’s Take On Facial Recognition: Fact or Fiction?

By Paul Schuepp

It’s no secret that Hollywood writers take plenty of liberties with their subject matter, often stretching the truth for dramatic effect or outright inventing things to fit neatly into a storyline.

That is certainly the case with a recent episode of the TV show The Blacklist, in which a smartphone photo of a dead man’s face was submitted to a PC-based facial recognition system.  Poof! Several perfectly clear photos were returned, offering the picture-taker a perfect match.

If only this depiction were true.

I know that, to the uninformed (and they are majority) this looks plausible. This must be how facial recognition works, right?

Not really.

Take a look at a screen shot of the image showed during the show. There are four things that are technically incorrect about this depiction:

  • The photo pretends to find random mesh of facial feature points on angulated face when in reality, accurate matches are much harder to make when a face is turned at an angle.
  • The dead man’s eyes are (naturally) shut. Closed eyes (AKA, no eye input) matches are much harder to make.  Most face recognition systems cannot even begin searching for a match until they find the eyes…open eyes.
  • Each feature point of the mesh on the man’s face is highlighted one at a time, implying that each individual feature is being searched against a database until all points are used to find the match, when in reality all the feature points are used together as the input to the algorithm which creates a biometric template of information about this face including coloration, distance measurements, illumination and – with our facial recognition systems – the 3D geometry.
  • Lastly, this depiction fails to show the subsequent step of comparing this template to each enrolled template in the database gallery.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined in the early 19th century by a poet who said that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and semblance of truth” into an interesting tale, the reader would suspend judgment on the implausibility of the storyline.

I understand that, but this episode of The Blacklist reminded me of the need to educate people about facial recognition; what it is, what it can do, what it can’t do.  There is truly a need to understand more about facial recognition in light of all the concerns now being highlighted about your privacy rights. Is your face vulnerable to automatic identification? Yes, it is. And that is either a worry or a comfort, depending on the use.

The false accept rate (that is, face recognition errors) in today’s systems are very low, provided there are enough good data points on the face for processing. This brings us back to Hollywood’s inaccurate notions about what faces can be processed for positive ID.  Without some modifications to the face in The Blacklist, the face recognition system would not have even got past the feature points detection stage.

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