Informed Librarian Online -- A Bit of Bytes --

Face Recognition

by Jenna Kammer

It’s always an exciting time for me when Apple has a new announcement. I am an Apple fan and even though I can’t afford all of their products, I admire how they set the standards for the evolution of personal technology (particularly mobile). Most recently, the Apple iPhone X was unveiled as having the potential to unlock with facial recognition (calling it “Face ID”). Simply by having the iPhone’s camera scan your face, your phone could unlock.

When I heard about the “facial recognition” feature, it caught my interest. First, this just seems like the natural next-step after unlocking with a thumbprint (Touch ID) right? Also, my information-minded brain started spinning without thoughts about privacy, accuracy and potential user problems that facial recognition could involve. I also started wondering: why??? What was wrong with the passcode and the thumbprint? Well, critics complained that the last iPhone didn’t have enough of a “wow” factor, and others complained the home screen required at least 2 touches to unlock. This new model covers both of those things. Plus, the users seem to want (and expect) technology to advance with each new iPhone release (that’s a joke, even though there may be some truth to it).

Apple isn’t the first company to include facial recognition in their mobile devices. Android phones (since the Lollipop) are already equipped with facial recognition (called Trusted Face) but have drawn criticism for being able to be hacked with a picture or by a person with similar features (or not working when the user makes a change to their face, such as shaving or growing a beard). Despite the security concerns, some people like the ability to use this feature instead of slower methods, like typing in a passcode (here’s how if you own an Android).

Apple’s Face ID comes from a company called RealFace. There was a lot of buzz in February when The Times of Israel reported that Apple had purchased RealFace (an Israeli facial recognition software company). RealFace is a startup that was known for its “frictionless face recognition” and creating authentication solutions that did not include passwords. Think about that—a world without passwords!

We know there will be security issues (hacking a phone with a photo), privacy issues (trusting Apple with our faces and other data that includes location and communications), and usability issues (during the live demo to unveil the iPhone X, facial recognition didn’t work on the first phone. Also, what happens if you gain or lose weight, or shave a beard? If your face changes will you be able to get into your phone? Must you take a new photo?). These are not new issues and scholars have been writing about facial recognition and mobile for a long time (for example, see Ijiri, 2006; Choi, et. al., 2011; Vasquez-Fernandez & Gonzales-Jimenez, 2016).

Facial Recognition and Libraries

With facial recognition entering the mainstream, we should think about how (and if) it could be applied in libraries. Libraries actually use a lot of ID based systems: cards, logins, RFIDs to name a few (all which have their pros and cons for library patron privacy). There are not too many libraries using facial recognition right now (see below for an example of one who is), but I did come across this article written by Lambert in 2016. This article was written after Android’s Trusted Face feature became available, but before Apple purchased RealFace. Lambert speculated that in the near future, a patron could simply walk through the scanners and prompts would tell him/her that there is an overdue book, a reserved item has become available, or basically anything that the library wanted to alert their patrons about. Librarians would just use customized, machine-generated, automatic messages that could help keep patrons informed. Though, like a true librarian, Lambert’s article went on to describe the legal and ethical implications of adding our faces to the big data pool and what that really means for our privacy (see “Who Own’s Your Face” by Robinson Meyer). These are conversations that society in general needs to consider as biometric databases (face recognition is biometric technology) develop.

There is at least one library who has trialed the use of facial recognition technology. The Toowoomba Regional Council library in Queensland, Australia actually did a one month pilot using facial recognition technology to analyze the faces of their patrons as a means to improve services. Usually this practice is reserved for surveillance cameras and security purposes, but the library trialed facial recognition as a means of tracking usage. The pilot drew attention from the public--some library patrons expressed concerns about having their faces recorded and placed in a database. The local news broadcast a story on the library’s use of facial recognition technology framed on the privacy concerns of citizens. You can listen to the podcast here:

Since facial recognition is really just beginning to be something usable and enter the mainstream, all we can do is speculate as to whether it will take off or fade away. Will libraries adopt it? Or will the software we use in libraries start integrating it? As librarians are getting involved more in big data, might they be called upon to be part of the team’s organizing the new collection of digital faces?

Copyright 2017 by Jenna Kammer.

About the author:
My name is Jenna Kammer,, and I am the author of this column. I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Missouri in the Library Science program. I have an MLS from the University of Arizona and a MA in Education from New Mexico State University. My PhD is from the University of Missouri where I studied information policy and technology in academic environments.