Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


face-recognition-security

(PHOTO: KEITH GENTRY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why You’re Able to Spot a Friend in a Crowd, Even When You Can’t See Their Face

• October 09, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: KEITH GENTRY/SHUTTERSTOCK)

And how new research on this common phenomenon will be used to improve controversial facial-recognition technology.

Have you ever surprised yourself by correctly recognizing a friend in a crowd, far, far away? Even if her face isn’t at all visible, there’s something about the way she’s standing or walking that gives her away instantly. New research by psychologists at the University of Texas-Dallas helps to confirm and explain that very common phenomenon.

In a study published recently in the journal Psychological Science, researchers asked participants to look at photographs of people in different settings and clothing and to match them up, determining which ones were photos of the same person. The photographs in the experiment were specifically chosen because they were hard for a facial-recognition computer program to identify. The study found that the participants had more success when they could see the bodies of the people in the photographs—and less success when the bodies were less visible but the faces were clearer. In fact, the participants also accurately matched the photos when they could only see the people’s bodies, while the faces were completely blocked out.

“Our work shows that the body can be surprisingly useful for identification, especially when the face fails to provide the necessary identity information.”

What’s most interesting about the experiment is that the participants tended to believe, incorrectly, that they were primarily looking at the faces in the photos in order to identify the people they were looking at. Eye-tracking equipment revealed that that wasn’t the case: when they couldn’t get enough information from the faces in the photos, they were actually spending more time studying the people’s bodies. “People’s recognition strategies were inaccessible to their conscious awareness,” said lead researcher Allyson Rice.

Many psychologists and computer scientists have historically studied facial recognition and ignored the larger picture, the authors concluded. They added that there are clear implications here for the technological development of non-human recognizers of faces, as well.

“Given the widespread use of face recognition systems in security settings, it is important for these systems to make use of all potentially helpful information,” said co-author Alice O’Toole. “Our work shows that the body can be surprisingly useful for identification, especially when the face fails to provide the necessary identity information.”

According to the University of Texas, this study was funded by the Technical Support Working Group of the Department of Defense, and the work of one of its co-authors, P. Jonathon Philips, is partially funded by the FBI. The fact that these agencies are working to find ways to make facial-recognition technology even more accurate than it already is won’t be surprising news, but neither will it be welcome news, to many people.

Facial-recognition technology in general has proved to be a fairly controversial issue, from the ethically problematic crime-fighting and crime-solving tactics pairing the tool with ubiquitous surveillance cameras, to the slightly more banal (but still creepy) example of Facebook photo-tagging. As it turns out, people don’t like to feel as though they’re walking around constantly being scanned through a series of Terminator’s-eye lenses.

Many legislators and privacy advocacy groups have spoken out against the spread this technology, and the debate will surely continue as more stories come out about the sometimes surprising ways that government agencies and corporations have been adopting it. And, of course, there’s the commercial exploitation of that creeped-out-feeling. For instance, there’s a new line of “Glamoflage” T-shirts that are meant to be worn as a kind of facial-recognition-tech-camouflage. (But, unfortunately, they are absolutely hideous.)

Maybe facial-recognition technology could avoid controversy if it weren’t used in massive government databases or for the purpose of coercing us into becoming even more absorbed in online social media. Maybe it could stick to its most appropriate use, in a machine that recognizes when we’re yawning and gives us free coffee. That’s something that everyone can get behind.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.