Why Facebook is Beating the FBI at Facial Recognition

By Russell Brandom for The Verge

(Images from Facebook's DeepFace scan)

(Images from Facebook’s DeepFace scan)

If you’re worried about Big Brother and computerized facial recognition, this summer has given you plenty of reason to be scared. Law enforcement has been toying with facial recognition for a while, but the FBI is getting set to deploy its own system, called Next Generation Identification (NGI for short), planned to be fully operational this summer. NGI will bring together millions of photos in a central federal database, reaching all 50 states by the end of the year. After years of relative anonymity, it’s easy to think 2014 is the year that law enforcement will finally know you by face. 

But here’s an inconvenient fact about the FBI’s shiny new system: it isn’t very good. Thanks to extensive work by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we actually know quite a bit about NGI, and the numbers suggest it isn’t very good at recognizing faces. Given a suspect’s face, NGI returns a ranked list of 50 possibilities, and only promises an 85 percent chance of returning the suspect’s name in the list. To put it another way, even when you give NGI 50 guesses, it still lets one in seven suspects off the hook.

Compare that to Facebook’s DeepFace system, presented at the IEEE Computer Vision conference earlier this month, and it looks even worse. Give Facebook two pictures, and it can tell you with 97 percent accuracy whether they’re the same person, roughly the same accuracy as a human being in the same spot. To be fair, Facebook has a whole network’s worth of data on its side, so it ends up comparing each face to a smaller number of possibilities. It isn’t an exact comparison, but the overall impression is hard to deny: the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency is getting outgunned by a social network.

Read more on The Verge.

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