by Carlos Difundo
It is a trope of the modern spy thriller. A drone flies overhead and captures a fleeting glimpse of some person of interest. The image begins as a pixelated blur from far above. Someone yells, “Enhance the image,” and it resolves into a high-quality profile that is run through a facial recognition program, which identifies the suspect every time. In the spy thriller, civil rights, accuracy, and verisimilitude are rarely top considerations. Despite being aware of the technical and legal limitations, the FBI and Department of Defense have joined forces in an effort to make that trope a reality.
Their wish list includes the ability to identify people captured by low-level street cameras to high-flying drones while also being able to follow people from camera to camera even as the angle of cameras differ. It seems the tool also needs to be capable of working in real-time while being indexable for future searches.
It is not clear how successful they have been in light of the significant technical challenges. Even using the high-resolution images found in jail bookings where suspects face the camera in strong lighting, extant best-in-class facial recognition systems, like those developed by Microsoft and Amazon, misidentify or fail to identify faces. Change the resolution to the grainy sort common with closed circuit cameras and doorbell cameras, and facial recognition success rates falter significantly. Add lighting challenges, different camera angles, or distances up to a half-mile away, and their success rates drop even more. Furthermore, if you define accuracy as being able to identify a single positive match or one at all, even those best-in-class systems struggle to accurately identify women of color under any condition in comparison.
The FBI and Department of Defense does not want the American public to know about the project. Fortunately, the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits demanding the information. Yet, it is unclear just how successful the government agencies were. What is clear is that after testing the facial recognition in environments simulating outdoor markets, hospitals, and schools, the system codenamed Janus (for the two- and sometimes four-faced Roman god) was integrated with an existing search tool codenamed Horus (for the Egyptian god of silence and secrecy). Once integrated, it was shipped out to six other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. To assuage the fears of people like Senator Edward Markey, the FBI declared its commitment to responsible use of the technology. With names like Janus and Horus identifying tools developed and deployed in secret to surveil American activities, Senator Makey and the American public might be justified if they maintain some degree of incredulity.
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