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Business

Facial recognition's got an eye on you

Haneda Airport to introduce device next month, but privacy concerns remain

NEC's facial recognition system uses a PC's camera to take a photo of the user, verifying the person's identity by comparing it against registered photos.

TOKYO -- Wearing sunglasses? Sticking your tongue out? Advances in Japan's facial recognition technology are enabling machines to detect individuals with higher accuracy and reliability, regardless of the disguises, offering a plethora of opportunities for business. 

Tokyo's Haneda Airport will introduce a facial recognition system in October to identify Japanese returning from abroad. The Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau will install three "face recognition gates" at passport control. Photos taken at the gates will be checked against images stored in chips embedded in travelers' passports.

Starting next fiscal year or later, the system will also be used for departures and installed at three other Japanese airports: Narita, near Tokyo; Chubu, which serves central Japan; and Kansai, near Osaka. The ministry has requested 1.6 billion yen ($14.3 million) to finance the project for the fiscal year starting in April 2018.

The technology is finding its way to consumers as well. Apple's newest iPhones allow users to unlock their devices simply by looking at them. Theme parks can scan visitors faces, letting them through the gates quickly.

It can also be used to authenticate a computer login or to grant entry into facilities. As the systems improve, ID cards and passwords could become a thing of the past.

Your unchanging face

NEC's state-of-the-art facial recognition system can identify individuals from photos taken 30 years before, or even if the person in the photo is wearing sunglasses. "The relative positions of the eyes, nose and mouth on a face don't change as the person grows older," said Nobuaki Kawase of NEC's facial recognition technology unit.

The company's technology works by detecting unique facial features -- such as the size and shape of the pupils, the flare of the nose and the corners of the mouth -- and analyzing their relative positions. That information is used to search for people with matching features.

The accuracy of the system is enhanced using such data as the coloring of the face. NEC's facial recognition system achieved a high rate of accuracy in a contest organized by a U.S. government agency, with an error rate of only 0.3%.

If a facial photo of an adult is entered into the system, the person can be identified even five decades later, according to NEC.

While facial recognition is still less accurate than fingerprint scanning, people feel less uncomfortable when images of their faces are taken than when their fingerprints are taken, said NEC's Kawase.

The face tells the story

Identifying people using video and comparing it against images stored in databases is also getting easier. Police in some U.S. states are using the technology in combination with security cameras to assist with investigations and crime prevention. In Japan, some police organizations have adopted a system to check images captured by security cameras against those of known criminal suspects, mainly to investigate international organized crime.

But the growing use of facial recognition is also raising privacy concerns. Some retailers are already using systems to analyze images of customers, gathering data on their age, sex and what parts of stores they visit, according to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

In January, the ministry announced a set of guidelines for commercial use of facial recognition technology to gather data on customers. The guidelines instruct stores to notify people when facial recognition technology is being used to collect customer data.

A revised law aimed at protecting personal information that came into force in May requires strict protection of facial data, which the legislation defines as a type of personal information.

"Businesses should realize that they are gathering personal information [when they use facial recognition technology] to collect data about customers," said Isao Echizen, a professor at the National Institute of Informatics.

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