Barcodes outperform facial recognition

Simon Clayton tells how even Apple’s demo failed
The Apple iPhone X launch has brought facial recognition into the news and so, of course, we need to look at its impact on the events industry. ‘Facial recognition is going to take the events world by storm and the humble barcode will soon be relegated to the past’. At least, that’s what the people selling it are claiming.

But seriously? Even Apple couldn’t get it to unlock the new iPhone as promised and that was demonstrated rather embarrassingly to over 1,000 people, including the worlds press.

The failed demo had an immediate impact on Apple’s shares, but they have already bounced back because they are Apple and the new iPhone has a lot of other great features (that probably do work).

Let’s look at the facts about facial recognition. One of the companies selling it for event registration has recently said that it is a faster way to produce a badge than simply scanning a barcode. They may say this, but where’s the proof?

The perfect answer to the naysayers like me would be a video on their website showing a real time demonstration of the system in use. It would be very simple to demonstrate and film, but they don’t have one - which hardly exudes confidence. I don’t believe it for one minute and I challenge any company that’s peddling facial recognition event registration systems to a time challenge against our trusty barcode scanners.

The barcode is an amazing invention and one that has stood the test of time, because it’s easy, cheap, fast and effective. With one little bleep of the scanner, the barcode is read, the information is matched to the registration data and a badge is printed.

The facial recognition systems I have seen so far are dramatically slower, or simply don’t work. Have you ever been processed by a passport system in the time a barcode scanner would take to make one little bleep? Or instead, like me, have you stood there for 30 seconds or more? I’m pretty confident that the technology used at airports is state-of-the-art, so why would facial recognition for event registration be faster? There is a slim chance that the system I mention above is utterly amazing, but I’ve not seen it yet.

Facial recognition also relies on you having accurate and security-checked facial data to match the facial scan, so you will need up-to-date photographs of all of your attendees – all logged, confirmed and stored. If security is of the upmost importance, then you will still need to confirm that the person in the photo is the person that they say they are. Unless you are going to run identity checks against legal photo ID, you only have that person’s word for it and you cannot guarantee that they are who they say they are.

There have also recently been news stories about AI facial recognition being able to learn to recognise a person’s political stance, their sexuality and their propensity for crime. If this technology does gain traction, we will see human rights laws and conditions being applied to its use to ensure it can’t be used for discrimination. It’s a rather scary proposition and we may end up with a public backlash against facial recognition being used at all.

Additionally, the storing of biometric data will take your data into a special category when the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) comes into force next May. Biometric data is particularly sensitive personal data with increased conditions to control its storage and usage. GDPR is causing enough confusion without these extra conditions to consider.

On one provider’s website they say that the data is encoded and would never be able to be turned back into a picture, but that doesn’t actually matter. Under GDPR – any biometric data that can uniquely identify or confirm the identity of a person is special category data which will require much higher levels of consent and protection.

This website also suggests that their data is stored securely on their servers on the internet. Does that mean they need an internet connection for it to work? What happens if the connection drops during a busy period - presumably check-in would just stop? During a recent event at Olympia, we were experiencing a connection speed of 300kbps, which could cripple a registration system that relies on internet connection - and that was in central London!

Facial recognition arrested the wrong man
Police trialled a state-of-the-art facial recognition system at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival and it couldn’t even tell the difference between a young woman and a balding man, according to a rights group worker invited to view it in action. They said it proved worse than useless: it prompted 35 false matches and one wrongful arrest of somebody incorrectly tagged as being wanted on a warrant for a rioting offence.

Facial recognition could be useful for an extremely high level security event – such as the G8 summit, but these events are few and far between. A bog-standard conference will never need that level of security – or be able to justify paying for it. It would be far easier for organisers to verify identities by checking the delegate’s photo ID. At some events we take a photo of the delegate whilst they stand there and then we print it on their badge, so that staff on the doors can double-check whenever they enter the event.

People are accustomed to using barcodes and use them for everything from event tickets to airport boarding passes.

They have been around a long time, because they work and they work quickly. Look at the speed with which a cashier scans the items at the supermarket checkout. It’s fast – faster than you can pack your damned groceries! That’s a barcode at work. Do you really think it would be quicker if the supermarket barcode scanner was replaced by a product recognition scanner that had to match its physical form to a database? It would be a step backwards in speed and a step forwards in cost.

So don’t write off the barcode – it’s cheap, reliable, fast and effective. It will never be replaced by a technology that’s slower, less accurate and expensive (and may not always work). If it ain’t broke why try to fix it?

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