Facial recognition: A strategic imperative for national security

An abundance of data is overwhelming intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials across the globe. Without immediate action to get ahead of this challenge, our national security will fall behind.


This is a guest post by IDEMIA NSS President and CEO B Scott Swann and Senior Director for Innovation and Customer Solutions James Loudermilk.

In recent years, the intelligence and law enforcement communities have struggled to extract actionable and accurate investigative information from a constantly expanding database of image evidence.

Additionally, the sheer number of malevolent actors on the web, especially the dark web – coupled with the rapidly expanding use of video – exacerbates this investigative challenge. As the volume of information balloons and the types of nefarious activity increases, the limits of current systems to analyze data and extract meaningful insights have already been reached.

This data problem will only increase. Cisco recently projected an annual 4.8 zettabytes of internet traffic by 2022. This presents real and fundamental challenges to the law enforcement and intelligence communities that must collect, analyze, store, and retrieve data to counter diverse national security and criminal threats. Hiding within these troves of information are photos and videos that contain identities that may threaten the national security of the United States and other ally countries. Our adversaries seek to hide within these data stores and conceal their malevolent intent at the same time.

This data challenge sets up an international game of digital Hide and Seek for the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Losing this game would undoubtedly have stark, and quite possibly disastrous, consequences. Winning will require nations to win the race to develop superior AI, machine learning, and computing resources. Biometrics, and specifically facial recognition technology (FRT) provides a game-changing technology to detect threats immediately and verify identities with near-certainty. Given the vast volumes of data that includes either photos or videos, the legally authorized utilization of FRT is likely to become one of the most strategic tools to support our national security posture.

Face recognition has been an active research and development area for more than fifty years and commercial systems began to emerge in the late 1990’s. Over the past twenty years, FRT accuracy has improved a thousand-fold; algorithmic approaches applied to portrait style images now recognize faces significantly better than humans can and are able to analyze data sets with greater speed and scale.

This paper will address some of the obscurities frequently associated with face recognition; provide a technical assessment of the current state of the technology; and evaluate recent claims that China and Russia are accelerating FRT capabilities beyond those currently available to the United States and partner countries.

Face recognition and public acceptance

FRT entered the public consciousness with the Hollywood surveillance film genre. Television crime shows have also played a major role in introducing the public to FRT. The dramatic representation of the technology’s capabilities on screen have distorted public perceptions dramatically. Many now believe that cameras in public spaces record our every movement, and that video of past activities can be recovered and matched instantly to individual names and dossiers on demand. Unsurprisingly, the privacy community has become greatly concerned, especially with video surveillance married to face recognition technology.

At the same time, however, consumers have embraced FRT. Off the screen and in our daily lives, Apple’s iPhone X, released November 2017, introduced most consumers to FRT.3 A face scan and match, used in lieu of password or fingerprint, unlocks the smartphone. Despite its incredibly high price, the popularity of the iPhone X has driven adoption significantly.

Because of convenience, usability and security benefits, consumers have embraced the technology and Apple has extended it to other product lines. FRT is cropping up in many application areas such as Facebook and finding greater public acceptance.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has started piloting projects that use FRT for international air departure tracking, which is starting to show real promise in addressing some persistent immigration challenges. But this and similar government applications of FRT have agitated the privacy community even though these systems are using images that have long been on file for use by customs and immigration authorities, e.g. passport photos and Visa application photos. Data has shown that 98% of citizens happily participate, and public reaction has been overwhelmingly favorable.

Amazon’s Rekognition product has also attracted the ire of the civil libertarian community. Many groups have demanded Amazon cease selling the technology to government agencies, due to their perception that the technology has unacceptable performance differences across demographic groups, genders, and age cohorts. This is despite significant documented performance improvement in comparison to the current practice of unaided human screening.

How well does the face recognition technology work?

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) established an ongoing one to one image (1:1) matching algorithm evaluation program in February 2017 and has published 18 different reports evaluating different vendor’s performance as of January 2019. Only four algorithms were submitted for the first round of testing. Best FRT performance using Visa images demonstrated a false match rate (FMR) under 0.000001 (1e-06), and an approximate 92% match accuracy. In January 2019, NIST evaluated 100 algorithms, and the best algorithm performance jumped to 99.6% accuracy. All the algorithms from the first round of testing have been retired and replaced with improved algorithms. The NIST testing reveals very rapid progress occurring in 1:1 face matching performance.

NIST has also been conducting one to many image (1:N) performance testing in three phases—two of which are complete with interim results published— using a 12-million person gallery that contains multiple images for many individuals. This gallery size is nearly an order of magnitude larger than previous galleries and is therefore much more representative of typical government identification use case requirements.

For Phase 1 of 1:N NIST testing, 31 organizations submitted a total of 65 algorithms for evaluation. Only 16 algorithms were able to work with large galleries. Rank one match accuracy on the 12-million-person gallery ranged from 95.1% to 99.5% with only two algorithms demonstrating less than 98% match accuracy.

For Phase 2, 38 organizations submitted 127 algorithms. Only 26 worked with large galleries; but for these the match accuracy ranged from 95.1% to 99.8%, with 11 algorithms exhibiting better than 99% match accuracy, and another 10 with better than 98% accuracy.

The Bottom Line

Recent tests demonstrate that FRT algorithms have come a long way in both 1:1 and 1:N match accuracy. In each category, under controlled testing environments, multiple vendors have been able to achieve 99+% accuracy. While important, these test results do not provide a complete picture of FRT performance under the real-world conditions facing law enforcement agents and intelligence analysts. Probe images from operational cases are rarely of “portrait-style” quality and other environmental and operational considerations present complicating factors for 1:1 and 1:N matching accuracy. Therefore, operational performance of FRT algorithms should include both controlled and operational testing environments.

Addressing face recognition criticism

No responsible discussion of FRT would be complete without a careful consideration of concerns raised by privacy and civil liberties advocates. We recognize that individuals expect clarity around how the technology may be used. Rather than enumerate the range of concerns highlighted, we provide some high-level guidelines we think are important for responsible FRT deployment:

FRT technology should only be utilized when there is an appropriate, compelling, and lawful use case and then do so following best practices. For government agencies, this requires documenting privacy threshold and impact assessments. In addition, government agencies should avoid over-collecting images from innocent people beyond what is necessary to achieve national security or law enforcement imperatives, develop appropriate policy implementation guides, enforce adherence to intended use of the technology and finally, protect and safeguard data following well-defined, appropriate retention rules.

1. FRT technology should be regularly refreshed to align with the current state of FRT capabilities. Employment of current technology will help overcome ongoing criticisms around ethnic and age bias of FRT technology. Many federal biometric systems utilize FRT that have not been significantly updated for nearly ten years. Old and obsolete FRT algorithms may demonstrate ethnic bias in match rates that would be addressed by upgrading to current FRT with inherently improved algorithms.

2. Professionals who interact with FRT systems should be adequately trained, qualified and routinely proficiency tested to ensure the continuing accuracy of their decisions. Many people look alike which can lead to misidentifications that decrease the overall confidence in FRT for both investigatory and prosecutorial purposes. Adequate training and qualification and ongoing proficiency testing will allow agents and analysts to maintain quality standards and technology limitations.

• The human brain is naturally inclined to see a face as a “whole” making it non-natural/difficult for a non-trained person to focus their examination on the small and unique features/details that assist in accurately identifying or eliminating especially where there is change due to aging or injury, differing angles or poses, or poor-quality images.

• Humans also tend to have more difficulty conducting facial comparisons of people of races different their own which is exacerbated in people without appropriate training.

• And lastly, humans without proper training over-estimate their ability to accurately conduct such comparisons and do not understand how concepts such as confirmation bias or contextual bias can affect decision making.

This last point is critical: despite portrayals on television and in films, the vast majority of FRT applications still require trained human operators to make final identification determinations. Current utilization of FRT tools help to expedite the review of video evidence, but do not make final decisions regarding human identification. Current systems generally provide a list of identification candidates to trained operators for further adjudication. Any inherent limitation or bias within the software can produce an improperly ranked candidate list, but the actual identification of an individual is ultimately determined by the facial examiner performing the adjudication.

For example, the New York Police Department has become increasingly vocal regarding the appropriate use of FRT. The NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) oversees the Face Identification Section where face recognition algorithms are applied to images and video obtained from crime scenes to help investigators identify potential suspects. Trained facial examiners review hundreds of candidate photos when attempting to identify an individual, corroborating video or photo evidence with other photos of the potential suspect sourced from previous arrests, social media posts, or other databases available to the investigators.

The Chinese and Russian FRT menace

In a growing trend, algorithms from YITU Technology in Shanghai, China have turned in top performances in NIST’s 1:1 match tests in recent years. NIST maintains an “FRVT Leaderboard”—at present, nine of the top ten performing 1:1 algorithms were developed by Chinese or Russian companies. Similarly, seven of the top ten highest performing algorithms in the 1:N NIST testing (page 7) came from China, two from Russia and one from Lithuania. This includes the top performer Microsoft, which many analysts believe, deployed a Chinese developed algorithm.

A superficial assessment, looking only at top performing scores on the most demanding test, has led some to believe that China and Russia now dominate FRT technology.

As many existing uses of FRT affect government national security and public safety programs, there is growing concern at the prospect of adversary foreign powers potentially dominating this technology.

One reason cited by industry analysts is the relative ease with which Russian and Chinese researches can access large volumes of annotated images. Unencumbered by the privacy advocated by Western governments, Chinese and Russian researchers can feed artificial intelligence (AI) systems a growing network of surveillance sensors and government databases of personally identifiable information to accelerate the machine learning process. In Xinjiang and other regions experiencing heavy-handed police tactics, these AI-based FRT systems are further aided by continuous feedback loops from large police forces actively confirming or refuting the accuracy of face recognition hits.

Recently, multinational companies—notably IBM—have stepped in to support the evolution of FRT algorithms that adhere to Western standards by releasing large volumes of annotated images to the open source community. These firms hope to develop a data baseline for the development and testing of face recognition algorithms that is deliberately unbiased. Yet the training data available to western developers, measured in millions of subjects, pales in comparison to Chinese holdings which approach their national population and appears to encompass large holdings of Western faces as well.

Along with better understanding and capability in the analysis and matching of faces comes insight into how to potentially defeat our public safety and national security systems. We must never forget that in a few hours on Tuesday morning September 11, 2001 just 19 men killed 2,977 victims, injured another 6,000+, and did more than $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. While many of the hijackers, and their images, were in investigative files; we then were unable to connect the dots to prevent the tragic events of that day. Our analytic capability is vastly better today, but our systems must recognize adversaries when confronted.

The entirety of the United States government must do its part to help protect our national competitiveness and intelligence/military superiority in the field of FRT. Failing to do so will cede technological and intelligence-driven advantages the United States possesses today.

Operational considerations: algorithms are only part of the picture

Given the importance of NIST test results for competing vendors, it is no surprise that developers tune their algorithms to perform best under specific testing conditions. And while these testing conditions are relevant to the myriad applications for FRT, they do not replicate the true operational conditions facing agents and analysts in the field. For example, the top two performers in NIST’s recent 1:N testing (pp 40 – 41) had accuracy results >99.2% but required search times of >2.6 seconds.

DeveloperAccuracy with FMR<1e-06Rank 1 Search Time
Microsoft-499.81%2.6+ sec
YITU-299.23%5.5 sec

The incremental increases in accuracy for the top performers do not outweigh the operational considerations for real-world applications, e.g., border crossings where timely throughput is a critical requirement. The following set of detection error tradeoff curves for the 24 best-performing algorithms for mugshot matching clearly shows how tightly grouped algorithm performance (page 38) has become. Bearing this in mind, performance criteria, other than matching algorithms, becomes significantly more important in choosing operational FRT systems. Systems that support operations, implement agency specific policy, provide effective operator dashboards, interoperate seamlessly with other agency systems and activities, and more become more important than a small incremental gain in matching accuracy.


Public safety and investigative applications

Ideal testing conditions rarely exist in real-world FRT applications. In public safety and lawful surveillance applications, cameras are seldom positioned to obtain portrait style images that form the basis of the NIST testing described thus far— cooperative single subjects with ISO/IEC 19794-5 conformant full-frontal images and mean interocular distances from 69 to 123 pixels. In real-world applications, pose, illumination, expression, aging, and occlusion become significant issues.

Algorithms are just part of a system. For face recognition, the camera itself, its positioning, and lighting set an upper limit on system performance. Consider the following for dynamic ranges of commercially available cameras in comparison to the human eye.

 Typical Dynamic Range
Human Eye24 f-stop
Digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camerasup to 14 f-stop
Compact cameras5-7 f-stop
Web camerasFar less than 5 f-stop

The use of quality cameras is essential and due to the advance of technology such cameras are affordable. Many older cameras really should be replaced.

Lighting conditions are well known to have a significant impact on face recognition algorithm performance. For example, the limited dynamic range of both digital and film cameras will sometimes “wash out” darker complexioned subjects against high reflectance backgrounds, rendering many FR algorithms ineffective. Ambient or artificial lighting also has an enormous impact on system performance, while very few (none that are commercial) work in the infrared. At present, there is no comprehensive body of testing from which to draw performance impact conclusions.

Pose is another operational challenge. The head of a stationary body has three degrees of rotational freedom about the x, y, and z axis commonly termed pitch, yaw, and roll.


Each has an impact on FR algorithm accuracy. Recent independent testing has not addressed the impact of roll and pitch. However, January 2019 NIST 1:N testing (page 50) results for yaw, that is rotations of the head to left and right, reveal a significant impact on false non- match rates for many algorithms. Darker is better in the figure below:

yaw of face in enrollment image

Head pitch was found to have a major adverse impact on FRT performance in previous testing as well; the performance impact on current state-of-the-art algorithms is unknown, however.

Aging is another important factor facing operational FRT applications, specifically the ability to discriminate against individuals at different ages and imposters.

NIST testing reveals that nearly all existing algorithms have significant performance deficiencies for the very young and the very old. Further, there is wide variation in performance between algorithms for populations in the 10 to 64 age range.

The IARPA JANUS program and other academic work is actively addressing the challenges of Pose, illumination, expression and ageing (PIE-A). As the research bears fruit the findings must be promptly incorporated into operational systems. The challenges of limited training data must be actively addressed to counter the advantages our adversaries are busily exploiting.

There are several schools of thought about what constitutes best performance for imposter detection, especially within the very challenging same gender, same age group, same country of birth cohort, where some would focus upon performance for problematic age and gender cohorts and others would focus upon minimizing the maximum adverse cross match rate for all cohorts. We will defer further examination of impostor detection to later publications.


The current state of face recognition when deployed responsibly is proven to have unparalleled utility for understanding identity. Given the magnitude of data that law enforcement and intelligence personnel must analyze, FRT must be characterized as a strategic technology for our Nation. Recent algorithm tests indicate that China and Russia are outperforming U.S. and our allies on FRT. However, results that look exclusively at algorithm performance do not provide a full picture of operational considerations for FRT applications. With the full complement of these operational FRT considerations, the Chinese and Russian leads become less acute, but this is a wake-up call for FRT developers in the U.S. and our allies. With less privacy protections afforded in many countries outside of the U.S., it is a distinct possibility that our adversaries will continue to improve technologies such as face recognition at a faster pace than the United States and our allies.

To begin addressing this, the U.S. Executive Branch should make anonymized data available to industry, perhaps with controls on use, a prohibition on further dissemination, and an inspection regimen, for systems development. Countries with little or no privacy protections can, and do, make vast repositories of individuals’ images, along with the associated metadata, available to their FR developers for algorithm improvement using AI technologies. Similar repositories, with needed metadata, are not available to commercial developers in the United States, or most of our allies. The cost to create such repositories is well beyond the resources of most FRT providers. At the same time, the Privacy Act of 1974, as currently interpreted, prevents government from sharing even anonymized extracts from operational systems. The United States, and most of our allies, will never disregard the privacy interests of our citizens. However, absent names, locations, event histories and like information it is infeasible to associate biometrics, age, gender, and demographic metadata with specific individuals in very large datasets.

The disruption that could potentially result from not knowing identities especially in this era of data explosion deserves careful attention with respect to our national security. As the epic war of ‘hide and seek’ continues to evolve, it is imperative that appropriate strategic investments are aligned with legal, policy and best-practice guidelines to support the responsible, effective and efficient utilization of FRT to detect threats immediately and verify identities immediately, and with high accuracy.

About the authors

B. Scott Swann is the IDEMIA NSS President and CEO, leading the identity service offerings for federal government agencies and drawing from his executive experience at MorphoTrak and 18-year tenure at the FBI. James Loudermilk is the IDEMIA NSS Senior Director for Innovation and Customer Solutions, bringing a wealth of national and international experience as a Senior Technologist for a US Federal agency on identification and innovation issues.

DISCLAIMER: BiometricUpdate.com blogs are submitted content. The views expressed in this blog are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BiometricUpdate.com.

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