Facial recognition technology leading us into a Minority Report world
Sci-fi fans will recall this scene from 2002 film Minority Report: John Anderton walks through a mall, and as his retina is repeatedly scanned, 3-D posters sell their products and services directly to him by name. I recall thinking at the time that that reality (the film is set in 2054) really was a distant one but the headlines about facial recognition technology over the last few months have forced me to seriously reconsider my initial conclusion.
Facial recognition software has been around for a while; as far back as 2001, police in Tampa Bay used it to identify known criminals attending Super Bowl XXXV. Fast forward 10 years and its use, again by police, is firmly in the spotlight as the Met confirm that facial recognition technology being developed for the 2012 Olympics is being used to identify suspects following this months’ riots. Britain’s ‘surveillance society’ has been well documented in the past, but a big point of difference is that, while ten years ago the authorities needed to scan a pre-existing database of their own making, these days that database is online and public in the form of Facebook, Picasa and countless other social networking sites.
Facebook rolled out facial recognition software internationally in June, automatically opting in its millions of users and suggesting tag options when other Facebook users are identified in freshly uploaded images. To say this is a technology that’s gone mainstream would be an understatement, so it’s no surprise to see brands starting to get in on the action.
Coca Cola launched Facelook to promote their involvement in a series of events in Israel this summer. Participants had to register first – and so opt in – then they could post content to their Facebook pages, using nothing more than their (you can guess what’s coming) face to identify themselves at ‘Facelook Machines’ set up at different venues
Scenetap also launched this summer. A start up based in Chicago, cameras are installed at the doors of participating bars and clubs in cities across the United States, using facial recognition software to identify how many people are in the bar, and the male to female ratio. This allows users to decide whether the crowd is what they’re looking for before entering the establishment. Over 200 bars and clubs have already signed up to the service, and although the founders say the images captured are not of a high enough quality to identify individuals, one could imagine a scenario where a tie up with Facebook could change all that very quickly.
Prior to Vancouver experiencing its own riots, thousands of hockey fans gathered to participate in an attempt to create the world’s biggest tagged photo online. This photograph took a huge amount of time and effort to create, but zoom in on the picture to fully appreciate the clarity of the images, and then notice the Facebook link encouraging users to log in and tag friends.
So we do live in a Minority Report world, or we’re fast tipping into it at least. At the moment this seems to be one of those classic situations where, in the right hands this technology can be a good thing, and the fact is it’s not going away. As consumers, it means we need to be ever more vigilant about our privacy settings and our personal rights, but it also opens up opportunities for brands that, when used appropriately, can be both highly creative and engaging. But it really does depend on individuals, government and organisations playing fair – are we really ready for that?