The real world impact of facial detection and recognition

From visual confirmation of rare diseases to securing smartphones, facial detection and recognition technologies have become embedded in both the background of our daily lives and the forefront of solving real-world problems. 

But is the resulting impact an invasive appropriation of personal data, or a benchmark in life-saving security and surveillance? Wherever you stand on the deep-learning divide, there is no denying the ways in which this ground-breaking biometric development is influencing the landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) application.

What is facial detection and recognition technology?

Facial detection and recognition systems are forms of AI that use algorithms to identify the human face in digital images. Trained to capture more detail than the human eye, they fall under the category of ‘neural networks’; aptly-named computer softwares modelled on the human brain, built to recognise relationships and patterns in given datasets.

Key differences to note

Face detection is a broader term given to any system that can identify the presence of a human face in a visual image. Face detection has numerous applications, including people-counting, online marketing, and even the auto-focus of a camera lens. Its core purpose is to flag the presence of a face. Facial recognition, however, is more specialised, and relates specifically to softwares primed for individual authentication. Its job is to identify whose face is present.

How does it work?

Facial recognition software follows a three-part process. Here’s a more granular overview, according to Toolbox:


A face is detected and extracted from a digital image. Through marking a vast array of facial features (such as eye distance, nose shape, ethnicity and demographic data, and even facial expressions), a unique code called a ‘faceprint’ is created to identify the assigned individual.


This faceprint is then fed through a database, which utilises several layers of technology to match against other templates stored on the system. The algorithms are trained to capture nuance and consider differences in lighting, angle and human emotion.


This step depends on what the facial recognition software is used for — surveillance or authentication. The technology should ideally produce a one-to-one match for the subject, passing through various complex layers to narrow down options. (For example, some software providers even analyse skin texture along with facial recognition algorithms to increase accuracy.)

Biometrics in action

If you’re an iPhone X user, you’ll be familiar with Apple’s Face ID authentication system as an example of this process. The gadget’s camera captures a face map using specific data points, allowing the stored user to unlock their device with a simple glance.

Some other notable face recognition softwares include:

  • Amazon Rekognition: features include user verification, people counting and content moderation, often used by media houses, market analytics firms, ecommerce sites and credit solutions
  • BioID: GDPR-compliant solution used to prevent online fraud and identity theft
  • Cognitec: recognises faces in live video streams, with clients ranging from law enforcement to border control
  • FaceFirst: a security solution which aims to use DigitalID to replace cards and passwords
  • services span to weapon detection, utilised by numerous sectors including education and security

Real-world applications

As outlined in the list above, reliance on this mode of machine learning has permeated almost all areas of society, extending wider still to healthcare and law enforcement agencies. This illustrates a prominent reliance on harvesting biometric data to solve large-scale global problems, spanning – at the extreme – to the life-threatening and severe. 

Medical diagnoses

We are beginning to see documented cases of physicians using these AI algorithms to detect the presence of rare and compromising diseases in children. According to The UK Rare Diseases Framework, 75% of rare diseases affect children, while more than 30% of children with a rare disease die before their fifth birthday. With 6% of people slated to be impacted by a difficult to diagnose condition in their lifetime, this particular application of deep learning is imperative.

Criminal capture

It was recently reported that the Metropolitan Police deployed the use of facial recognition technology in Westminster, resulting in the arrests of four people. The force announced that this was part of a ‘wider operation to tackle serious and violent crime’ in the London borough. The software used was a vehicle-mounted LFR system, which enables police departments to identify passers-by in real-time by scanning their faces and matching them against a database of stored facial images. According to the Met Police website, other applications of face identification include locating individuals on their ‘watchlist’ and providing essential information when there is an unconscious, non-communicative or seriously injured party on the scene.

Surveillance and compliance

A less intensive example, but one that could prove essential to our pandemic reality. Surveillance cameras equipped with facial detection were used to filter face mask compliance at a school in Atlanta, while similar technology has been applied elsewhere to conduct gun control.

Implications of procuring biometric information

Of course, no form of emerging or evolving technology comes without pitfalls. According to Analytics Insight, the accuracy rates of facial recognition algorithms are notably low in the case of minorities, women and children, which is dangerously problematic. Controversy surrounding data protection, public monitoring and user privacy persists, while the generation of deepfake media (and softwares like it), used to replicate, transpose and project one individual’s face in replacement of another, gives rise to damaging – and potentially dangerous – authentication implications. Returning to the aforementioned Met Police arrests, even in this isolated sample, reports of false positives were made, sparking outcry within civil rights groups.

At the centre of this debate, however, one truth is abundantly clear; as a society, we are becoming rapidly reliant on artificial intelligence to function, and the inception of these recognition algorithms is certainly creating an all new norm for interacting with technology.

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