For most, the eyes and face are windows to the soul, but for the bad guys at the 2014 World Cup, it could be a ticket to incarceration. Brazilian authorities are deploying the Ex-Eye, a state-of-the-art face recognition system that’s integrated with a sweet pair of Oakleys. The device, manufactured by the Israel-based company Ex-Sight, has received widespread coverage in the mainstream press, but we’ve come to find out many of the specs have been over-hyped. We’ll get to that later. For now, check out the video below from the Brazilian TV network, SBT. Pardon the Portuguese, but at least you can get a rough sense of the functionality.
After some gratuitous RoboCop footage, you can see a military police officer stoically surveying a crowd with cold intensity (0:12). Then, reporter Simone Quieroz shows off the Ex-Eye by pointing to the wearable components, eerily treating the expressionless officer as if he were the device in question (0:36). We get to see an “example” of Ex-Eye’s image analytics at 0:52, where the camera scans a crowd of cartoonish mugs and pinpoints a perp.
Like any techie out there, demos in Portuguese are not enough. We want to see some specifications! Well, for some misleading tech specs, look no further than this piece from the Telegraph. Along with some more played-out RoboCop references, there are some blatantly exaggerated claims. For example:
The camera will generally be used to scan faces in crowds up to 50 metres (164ft) away but can be adjusted, if searching for a specific target, to recognise faces as far as 12 miles away.
Picture this for a moment . . . a mini-camera mounted on glasses zooming on targets that are 192 soccer fields away, while maintaining a high enough resolution to accurately recognize a face. Does that jive with you? Me neither.
To sort this out, I got in touch with Arlin Gieschen, the President of Direct E-Secure, Ex-Eye’s U.S. distributor. To say the least, the Telegraph article certainly had a sensationalist slant. However, to my surprise, Mr. Gieschen revealed details that actually surpassed the orignally reported specs.
Let’s start by un-packaging the so-claimed 12 mile range. According to the source, the distance is fully dependent upon the camera that’s interfacing with Ex-Sight’s face recognition software. Indeed, there are some large military cameras that can zoom past the 12 mile mark. As long as the camera can capture a face with at least 40 pixels between the eyes, Ex-Sight’s algorithms can accurately identify faces using almost 50,000 distinct features. However, according to Direct E-Secure, there is no mobile mini-cam on the market today that can zoom 12 miles without losing this resolution. In the Telegraph excerpt above, the writer says the camera “can be adjusted” to attain this zoom power. Does this “adjustment” involve using a completely different, more powerful camera? Also, if you’ll refer back to the Brazilian video, you’ll see a stationary camera hanging over a van at 1:31. Why do you need that measly old camera if you’ve got a pair of super-cool RoboCop goggles? Because mini-cams don’t zoom 12 miles.
What about the Telegraph writer’s claim that the Ex-Eye can “capture 400 facial images per second”? Direct E-Secure’s President offered some clarification, suggesting that there are actually two steps in this process: face uploading and biometric analysis. Actually extracting a single face from a crowd requires 0.7 seconds, or about 1.4 faces per second. However, once the face is uploaded, the Ex-Sight algorithms can compare it to 100,000 faces per second.
In a sense, this is superior to the original reports because the Ex-Sight’s recognition system can search through large facial catalogues. To compare a captured face image to 13 million mugshots (the database limit mentioned in the Telegraph article), it would take just over 9 hours, more than enough time for any delinquent to escape the country (the system would arrive at the correct match sooner than this, but you get the picture). In fact, according to Mr. Gieschen, the 13 million mark is much lower than Ex-Sight’s software capabilities. He says the database size is practically unlimited, so users could literally compare any face to any mugshot on the planet.
Twelve miles? Four-hundred faces a second? These distorted specs spread like wildfire across the major sci-tech news outlets. Like dominos, Techland, Gizmodo, AOL News, and the Daily Mail fell for the “RoboCop Goggles” in quick succession. Don’t think this an isolated incident either. Last year, Singularity Hub critiqued another over-hyped story, the Guardian’s misleading article on “reversing aging” in mice. Why isn’t there more fact-checking and skepticism in the sci-tech media, and where does this misrepresentation leave the readers? Well, first we must understand the motivation. Titles containing terms like “RoboCop” or “Reverse Aging” are very clickable, drawing more eyeballs to the article and boosting potential ad revenues. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, as long the article portrays scientific findings or technology with accuracy and a critical eye. However, if the sci-tech media consistently exaggerates stories, the public could become de-sensitized to the real breakthroughs. Consequently, readers could have a skewed perspective of the current status of techno-scientific advances. While my educational background isn’t in journalism, this just doesn’t seem right to me.
But don’t let this journalistic over-hype curb your admiration for these hi-tech spectacles. The Ex-Eye is still pretty awesome. It bridges the gap between cutting edge surveillance and enforcement, allowing security personnel the opportunity to intervene at the moment of facial recognition. Paired with stationary cameras that can pick out targets at longer distances, Ex-Sight is definitely providing a comprehensive, state-of-the-art surveillance system to the Brazilian authorities. Frankly, I think RoboCop would be envious.
These gawker glasses may offer some assurance to anxious soccer fans at the most viewed sporting event in the world, but could they also be a potential tyrannical tool for state voyeurism? Don’t be so paranoid! Biometric analysis is not a sign of an imminent New World Order. As long as it’s not used to find political enemies or peer into private residences, I think this technology is ethically sound. Besides, any tool can be misused if it falls into the wrong hands. This principle holds true for even the most mundane of human inventions. A shovel is made to dig dirt, but it can also be applied to more nefarious ends. Trust me, these new spyglasses aren’t nearly as evil as the cacophonous vuvuzela orchestras of 2010’s World Cup.
Still have privacy concerns? Well, just know that times are a-changin’. Whether we like it or not, privacy is the new celebrity. So, unless you want to walk around sporting a facepalm (see right) the rest of your life, try to learn to love these RoboCop glasses. But don’t worry, they aren’t as powerful as the spyglasses you’ve seen in the papers.
<Images: Sistema Brasileiro de Televisao (SBT) (screen capture) (modified), Ex-Sight (screen capture), FIFA>