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How a facial recognition mismatch can ruin your life


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Writing in The Intercept, Ava Kofman tells the harrowing story of Steve Talley, who was mistaken for a man who robbed multiple banks in Colorado. Law-enforcement officials used facial recognition software to identify Talley, and even though he was eventually exonerated, he spent time in jail for the crimes. The startling story demonstrates that facial recognition software is far from a reliable tool, even as more and more law-enforcement agencies rely on it. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Scientists have only recently discovered that facial recognition ability exists along a spectrum. Just as there are people who are completely face blind, there are also individuals who wield exceptional, preternatural skill in recognizing faces. The London Metropolitan Police has administered tests to form a selective bureau of officers, the first of its kind, filled with these “super-recognizers.” Many super-recognizers display higher accuracy with images in varied conditions than even the most refined algorithms, and David White, the Australian scientist, has worked with several of them to gain insights into the nature of human recognition abilities. But it’s unclear if other departments will follow the Met’s lead in testing and trusting them.

The forensic comparison and video analysts who spoke with me emphasized the steps they took to guard against bias: limiting their knowledge of the case to only the relevant evidence at hand, securing the original format of the video, admitting when the evidence was insufficient.

“Bias can lead to error if you think you know the right answer and are supposed to know the right answer,” Jason Latham explained. He said that his clients sometimes get frustrated because he avoids hearing prejudicial information before conducting his analysis. In 2015 the National Commission on Forensic Science dictated that fingerprint analysts be provided with only the information necessary to their analysis, but such steps have only taken the form of recommendations for facial examiners. Meanwhile, the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science started work last year to update the Facial Identification Scientific Working Group guidelines and standards. The updated documents have not yet been released.

Image: A selection of photos is mapped with grid points by facial recognition software. Via The Intercept.