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Complete Guide to Understanding Facial Biometrics: Should You Be Scared?

Does facial biometric technology scare you? Maybe it should make you feel safer.

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If you've unlocked an iPhone with FaceID, you've used facial biometric technology. So, why does this phrase make people so uncomfortable? Have sci-fi movies like Minority Report made us fearful of being bombarded with targeted ads as we walk down a street? Or are we afraid that facial recognition might be utilized for "precrime" identification or an alternative form of big brother government surveillance? Probably not.

As a new technology, facial biometrics prompts logical concerns about how they can be used and how they might impact the privacy of the average person. Such concerns are valid, but are often borne of misunderstandings of how biometrics work and the specific applications where they play a role.

Biometrics is the measurement and statistical analysis of a person's unique physical and even behavioral characteristics. The term refers to ways of verifying a person's identity based on what they are, instead of what they have (i.e., a card) and what they know (i.e., historical data based on a person's name or Social Security Number, or entering a passphrase or password). Biometric authentication verifies your identity based on something unique about you.

The first step to keeping your identity secure and your privacy intact is understanding the different forms of facial recognition and biometrics, detailed below.

Related: The Importance Of Having Accurate Facial Recognition

Facial biometrics: recognition vs. authentication

Facial biometrics is a broad umbrella term encompassing both facial recognition and facial authentication. Facial biometrics refer to modes of identity authentication based on your face. For instance, your iPhone unlocks only upon being shown your face. In other applications, your on-the-spot selfie is matched to a previously-uploaded copy of your government ID to access your bank account or previously authenticated selfie images.

As technology advances, the day is coming when your face not only unlocks your device but also quickly and efficiently verifies your identity for even the most sensitive online transactions. Two types of facial biometrics are currently in use:

  • Facial recognition relies on a "one to many" match. This form of biometric technology has various law enforcement applications; police, for example, deploy facial recognition when seeking a match for a potential witness or suspect out of a crowd of people or a sea of online photos. Facial recognition often raises privacy concerns — perhaps out of a fear of large databases of individuals' faces or authoritarian efforts to create "social credit scores." That's why understanding this technology is crucial to assuaging fears.

  • Facial authentication is critically different from recognition: It's a "one-to-one" matching technology. Facial authentication matches a person's face to a previously verified image from a trusted source, like a government ID or previously enrolled and authenticated biometric selfie. Think of your face unlocking your phone multiple times per day or your face granting access to your online bank account to confirm your identity or to confirm a purchase or account change.

Related: The Technology Consumers Can Use to Combat Fraud

Facial biometrics uses and wins

This new technology has already enjoyed a number of exciting successes in a growing number of use cases. For instance, many law enforcement agencies have caught a variety of bad actors by using facial recognition across video surveillance as well as identifying missing persons. In Europe, the broad use of CCTV systems has led to greater adoption, and debate, about the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies across the continent. Both in Europe and the U.S., the extent to which facial recognition has facilitated resolutions to trafficking, counter-terrorism and other crimes has offered strong evidence that this technology is a key public safety tool.

Additionally, facial authentication has demonstrated its exciting potential to afford strong identity proofing to businesses that customers will find easy to use. Facial authentication can make online transactions totally secure, making it a critical tool for mitigating the increasingly high business costs associated with identity theft or fraud.

Facial biometrics can be an enormous asset in underwriting as well. It is a streamlined and highly accurate way to evaluate and verify claims as well as create a more secure initial underwriting transaction. Companies can verify that someone is who they say they are at the outset with a person's unique face: no fingerprints, voice or other means necessary. The rise of friendly fraud amplifies the importance of underwriting. In friendly fraud, customers who aren't career criminals exploit businesses by claiming they did not make purchases, account changes, etc. An example of this is the first-party misuse of chargebacks. Using biometric authentication at the time of purchase is a huge defense against this growing fraud.

Other facial biometrics advancements also help prevent spoofing when capturing the selfie image, like liveness detection. Today, most modern facial authentication systems can detect whether an image is real or fake at the point of capture. This technology, when applied correctly, can stop a bad actor from using a photo, facemask or even deep fake video to authenticate sensitive information, like a bank account. Anti-spoofing technology can provide secure and accurate liveness detection with 3D or 2D cameras.

Biometrics is a win-win for customers and businesses, who now have a powerful tool to prevent fraud and ensure users have a streamlined, safe online experience while eliminating the need to remember dozens of passwords.

Related: How Biometric Solutions Are Shaping Workplace Security

Fears and realities of your face

Despite the successes and use cases, fears remain. Whether we like it or not, our selfies, and therefore our faces, are everywhere in an increasingly digital world. Your face, with all its intricacy and uniqueness, is also your most valuable password. While it can be an incredibly powerful tool for fraud prevention, you should be aware of the real dangers involved when it is misused or poorly constructed.

First, not all facial biometric technology is developed properly or effectively. For example, bias can be a problem. According to NIST, the current algorithms' rates of false rejections when verifying certain groups based on race, age and sex may hinder its accuracy, or lead to fears that the technology may be used improperly for marginalized groups. Bias in facial biometrics could erode and possibly destroy a business's bottom line as well as its credibility. However, recent advances in facial recognition technology have led to consistent improvements. For example, the best algorithms arrived at the right answer over 99% of the time, with most of the remaining error due to aging or injuries between image captures.

In addition, privacy is another ongoing worry. While technological advances have greatly diminished the risk of false positives and increased the technology's accuracy, privacy issues have led a variety of U.S. cities like Portland and Baltimore to pass laws banning most public and private uses of facial recognition technology. These bans sought to assuage mass surveillance fears by halting the heavy use of facial recognition. But the best way to strike a balance between civilian and police concerns will certainly be an ongoing discussion.

Related: 5 Fundamentals for Protecting Your Identity and Your Privacy

Stay informed, not scared

Luckily, the average person has many tools at their disposal to secure their data and privacy. First, read the fine print. Pay more attention to what companies intend to do with your data once they capture it; sometimes, fine-print clauses, once you sign off, furnish them with permission to use your data for marketing.

Additionally, you can use a digital identity wallet to secure your data instead of trusting third parties with it. This is a secure, easy method to ensure you've identified a clear choice of what data you will or won't share with a company or person.

With proper safeguards and usage, facial biometrics are a critical tool for identity authentication in many use cases. Importantly, businesses should be wary about the technology they choose for facial biometrics — not all technologies have the same level of non-bias or provide the same safeguards for spoofing.

Recognizing people by their faces is one of the oldest ways people identify each other. Emerging facial biometric technologies allow us to embrace the digital revolution while leveraging this traditional social trust practice. Technological advancements mean accuracy is getting better and fraud cases are getting fewer. While both the general public and businesses must take into account a variety of protections and best practices to keep information and privacy secure, facial biometrics carries the power to improve user experience, customer security and business operations all at once.

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