May 6, 2019
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Facial recognition? More intelligence is needed

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The technology is imperfect and risks creating real inconveniences to people, as has already happened in Ousmane Bah in the United States.

The news is recent, although it refers to events that took place last November. Precisely on November 29, 2018, New York police officers arrested 18-year-old American Ousmane Bah accused of committing several thefts in the Apple Storeof Boston, New Jersey, Delaware and Manhattan. Only that the young man, his goodness, has never committed any of the defendant crimes. What prompted the arrest? The responsibility is of the facial recognition system installed in the cameras of the shops of the Apple, in the States as around the world, which literally took a corner, associating a face with a wrong name. This is because the real thief ran Bah’s pink sheet in his pocket, stolen from who knows where, so as to authenticate around with credentials different from his real ones. The pink sheet in the United States is often without a passport photo, so it was not difficult to assume a new identity. The criminal has done nothing but show up at an Apple Store and provide the stolen document for accreditation and ask for some clarifications.

I was afraid that sooner or later this would happen. The use of facial geometry to identify us has become a mainstream technique, which brings us closer and closer to a society where continuous surveillance is around every corner. Mind you: Apple , like any other company with stores in the area, has every right to install security systems, to which however it must connect truly intelligent software, which does not only link a point A to a B, without relying on further elements and validated historical archives. Can we really turn the city with ID cards and other drivers’ licenses and exchange sensitive information like nothing happened? Go for the absence of the photo on the American pink sheet, the matter is not limited to a printed image.

To understand why facial recognition is far from being that perfect technology that they tell us we need to know what makes it possible. Born from two fundamental components, the first concerns the ability of computers to recognize faces. Although the techniques are very advanced nowadays, it is time for algorithms to find other matches on the internet to make a meaningful match for people. The other part is the speed with which the machines are able to trace a conformity between the figures. Yesterday I posted a photo on Facebook and the social media immediately asked me if the others were «Neo», «Trinity» and «Morpheus»; no doubt, they were really them. Because the software infrastructure adopted by Apple is managed by the Security Industry Specialists, did you not ask the same question before sending two agents to the home of an alleged offender?

Here there was not even the risk of false positives, in which two individuals may have sufficiently similar faces to deceive the matrix: Bah and the thief shared nothing except the fact of having two eyes, two ears, a mouth. Yet the Face ID on the iPhone unlocks the phone even in the dark.

The scenery is crazy and far more fearful than the stories of Orwellian memory. Here, even a small mistake is enough to send a person to jail. Too much? No, the case of Ousmane is proof of this. The boy has sued, of course, 1 billion dollars: how many cases will we have from here to the next ten years and how many of these will actually be accepted, with obvious moments of stress, tension and fear on the part of innocent victims? I exaggerate if in the background I see a Minority Report full of evaluation errors and bit misunderstandings? And what if every thousand cases resolved there was only one not reasonably certain of a fault? Post-human and apocalyptic digressions, not so far from reality.

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