The wall that knows whether you're a criminal

It's pretty common to end up wandering around CeBIT in a daze. The size of the show (there are bus routes inside the showground), the hubbub of languages, and the constant obstructions caused by gawping nerds. It was while semi-hypnotised, then, and irritated by a crowd behind me and a crowd in front of me, that I got my wake-up call, taking the form of the system of which I took the very bad picture above.

It's not a cartoon-face pre-processor: it claims to be an automatic face recognition and fraud-prediction system. It was on the stand of German identity-management firm Dermalog, though I confess I was jostled so much by gurning techies eager to get a picture, of their picture, on this screen that I didn't manage to verify how complete the development is.

The idea of the system is that fraudsters will very likely not be happy, and may otherwise be characterised by predominating flags that help to narrow down their intentions

Dermalog was pretty proud of it, though. The screen beside it showed the visit yesterday to their stand by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, apparently unfazed by the irony of a politician taking a long, hard look at a system devoted to the detection of fraudsters by their facial expression alone.

The floating text beside that torrent of faces which you probably can't read is what shows the ability of the system. Having spotted a face, the system tags it with a gender, an age estimate, and a mood. Charmingly, it recognised me as a male but then pegged me as "60, +/- 15 years, happy", which is technically correct but painfully unflattering. The idea of the system is that fraudsters will very likely not be happy, and may otherwise be characterised by predominating flags that help to narrow down their intentions.

I would say that it's not really ready for primetime, based on my results. If the face was a good enough indicator of mood then it should have tagged me as "freaked out on business technological ennui", not simply "happy", and no police force would accept a description of someone as "aged between 45 and 75" - that's the gap between Daniel Craig and Jack Nicholson.

I suppose this kind of party-trick technology is trapped in a demo Catch-22, since if it's any good at detecting fraudulent intent from a face, then the vendors have to engage the talents of a known criminal, and persuade them that they should make like they think they are going to pick someone's pocket (at CeBIT containing mostly freebie USB keys) so that they get a "live alert" out of the system.

I'm not sure which aspect of this worries me more: that the time-to-acquire for a new face drifting into the webcam field was down in the sub-second level, or that the value of the system is touted as being a predictor of behaviours, a better detector of true intent than all the Columbos, Crackers, Wexfords and Marples rolled together.

"The innocent have nothing to fear" is all well and good, while prediction takes a back set to actual criminal acts, but "he looks just the sort" is the favoured excuse for all manner of presumptuous, and baseless, totalitarianism.

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