• Dr. Timothy Smith

Is Facial Recognition Killing the Spy?


Photo Source: Flickr

People love the spy genre in fiction and film as evidenced by the wild popularity of franchises like James Bond and Jason Bourne. According to The Numbers.com, the James Bond films beginning in 1963 with Dr. No to 2015 with Spectre have grossed $7.1 billion worldwide, and the Bourne franchise pulled in $1.7 billion over five films starting in 2002. The spy genre ranges from the serious such as John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to the comedic such as the television series Chuck. However, one theme that runs through many spy stories involves the necessity of the spy to assume various identities to gain the confidence of their targets, cross borders, or gain access to highly protected locations. In fact, the retired CIA agent and author, Vaughn Sherman, describes in “How Accurate Are Bourne and Bond? Ask an Ex-CIA Officer,” the role of field agent seldom even involves weapons or, even less likely, car chases; instead, the intelligence agent must carefully build relationships with the people they have to gather information from. (huffpost.com) The process may involve assuming a false identity in order to infiltrate an organization and often takes years to cultivate.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence, especially in the area of facial recognition, stand to radically limit the ability of agents to protect or change their identity. Through a process called deep learning and the availability of millions of photographs of people’s faces from major technology companies such as Google, Apple, Alibaba, and Facebook, computers now can identify and match human faces in near real-time. Facebook, through their facial recognition capability and billions of profile pages, currently operates one of the world’s largest name-to-face databases ever assembled. Most importantly, if a user gives Facebook permission to automatically recognize and tag their face in all photos, every time a picture gets uploaded with their face in it, other users can know their identity immediately. Additionally, other searches such as Google image search make it far more straightforward than ever before to find people and put a name to a face. According to a study titled, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” conducted by the Pew Research Center, 95% of teenagers in the United States has or has access to a smart phone, and 45% of teens report being on their phones constantly. (pewinternet.org) With the sheer volume of social media traffic and surveillance images, anyone’s identity can be found or at least tracked, which makes field agents much more vulnerable than in the past.

The spy genre remains hugely popular around the world as evidenced by the large variety of spy films, TV shows, and books that gross billions of dollars. Spy stories often feature action sequences with car chases and gun fights, but in real espionage, the agents in the field must work to gain the confidence of the person who has essential information. The work may take years, and the spy may be working under an assumed identity, which, if compromised, could have dangerous, even deadly, effects. Before the proliferation of social media and the development of artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition, a spy could assume different identities and have a good chance of avoiding detection. However, today, with the vast improvement in facial recognition and billions of photos online, maintaining a false identity for undercover operations becomes increasingly tricky. Even if you do not intend to become a spy, be sure to check your privacy setting on Facebook and other platforms if you do not want your face to be used for tagging and tracking.

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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