• Dr. Timothy Smith

Facial Recognition AI and the Spy


Photo Source: Max Pixel

“My name is Bond, James Bond.” That introduction may be the most famous one in motion pictures. The iconic spy, 007, has dazzled and inspired generations with his bravery, wit, tenacity, and good looks. Leads such as Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Daniel Craig defined the role and suggested that the best spy must also be the best-looking man in the room. Although few of us would ever know what it is like to be a real spy, conventional wisdom implies that an effective spy should be very discreet. In an article by Julie Miller in Vanity Fair titled “14 Ways Spy Movies Are Nothing Like Real Life, the historian and curator at the International Spy Museum, Dr. Vince Houghton, declares that a spy should, most of all, not stand out—be non-descript. Whether going under cover to infiltrate an enemy country or outlaw organization to thwart evil missions or gather intelligence, the spy relies on pretending to be someone else and the safety of their life and mission depends on maintaining that cover.

Today, the vast proliferation of facial recognition using artificial intelligence has made the identity of spies and their ability to infiltrate organizations much more challenging. The US government as well as other governments, state and local law enforcement organizations, and commercial ventures continue to invest heavily in facial recognition. With facial recognition becoming much more accurate than ever before and the availability of a massive number of identified pictures of people’s faces such as in passport, driver’s license, and criminal databases, putting a face to a name continues to become easier and easier. Now, such capabilities give law enforcement a better chance of finding and apprehending criminals than ever before. However, putting a face to a name does not just remain a capability of the government, military and law enforcement. For example, the US military collected image and fingerprint information during the Iraq war on Iraqi insurgents and on those working at the US bases. Such information aided in detecting movements and even solving who made unexploded bombs. However, putting a face to a name does not just remain a capability of the government, military and law enforcement.

Commercial giants such as Google, Facebook, and Alibaba use facial recognition for many applications from identifying people in pictures to the new “Smile to Pay,” that allows customers to smile to purchase their meal at KFC. Other smaller commercial ventures sell the same technology to private enterprises. For example, a company called FindFacePro claims to offer the same ability to find people in their database of billions of faces. Another company started by the former Israeli secret service agents called Terrogence, according to Thomas Fox-Brewster, in a Forbes article has harvested millions of faces from Facebook, YouTube, and other sources. On the other hand, such commercial applications may also serve the needs of criminal organizations and enemy powers. Kate Brannan on foreignpolicy.com noted that terrorist organizations use the same technology to follow their operatives and, one can assume, to detect undercover agents that have infiltrated their organization.

Spies such as James Bond and Jason Bourne with their remarkable skills and exceptional looks portray in movies portray highly recognizable spies, which contrasts with the general idea that spies should be as non-descript as possible. The last thing that spies want is to stand out. Blending in creates the opportunity to infiltrate organizations to thwart evil actions and to gain information. The rise of facial recognition powered by artificial intelligence has changed the playing field in espionage because this new technology makes it very difficult to blend into a crowd or to go undercover. The government may use the information from its many databases to search for criminals and terrorists in real-time in airports or border crossings, but the same technology either through a free image search on Google or commercial services such as FindFacePro makes a spy much more vulnerable to detection while undercover. Merely acquiring a false passport or going underground with an assumed identity may not be possible or at least much more dangerous in the age of artificial intelligence powered facial recognition. Espionage involves danger especially for the field operatives and now more than ever new technologies will need to emerge to counter the growing threat of detection.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.

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