It’s a new year but you are probably the same old you, with the same old face – and that’s a good thing.
It means you’re instantly recognisable to your friends and family. It means you can easily recognise other people which, if you’ve ever tried to meet someone at arrivals in Heathrow airport, is pretty handy. Have you ever asked yourself why your face is unique in a crowd of seven billion? And while you may look similar to someone somewhere in the world, you probably stand out clearly in your immediate social circle. Take a look around you – do you look like the person you’re sitting next to?
‘Easily distinguishable’ is the key phrase here. Try picking a king penguin out of a colony, or a hippopotamus out of a herd, or a zebra out of a zeal (oh yes). All of these creatures are certainly facially distinguishable in some way, but not as obviously as one human to another. Penguins, hippos and zebras may disagree and are free to voice that disagreement by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to a 2014 study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, humans have evolved in such a way that varied facial features are encouraged. Behavioural ecologist Michael Sheehan, co-author of the study, said many animals (like penguins) use smell or sound to identify individuals, making distinctive facial features relatively unimportant for them. But humans are different. As a species, we have developed in such a way that recognition of individuals – by their face alone – is made easier.
It’s not just our intelligence and cognitive abilities that have evolved,” says Sheehan. “Being in complex social systems has continued to shape our morphology.
Or in other words: the structure of our bodies (and faces) has been influenced by our preference for hanging out and interacting in large social groups, like tribes, towns and cities. It’s also been shown that our brains are actually wired to recognise thousands of faces – it’s called ‘facial pareidolia’, and also helps to explain why we see religious figures in food. People you met 10 years ago will quickly recognise you again not because you walk a certain way or smell a certain way, but because your face reveals your identity. It reveals, in the vast majority of cases, your gender, your heritage and your feelings.
Here’s the good news: your face isn’t going out of fashion. In fact, it’s becoming all the rage in identity assurance. It’s the Justin Bieber of the security world.
Your face is still the most widely used way of proving your identity. It’s on most of the IDs you carry and you’re still required to show up in person for many sensitive services, like opening a bank account. And now, to lessen the mind-numbing strain of remembering passwords and usernames, facial recognition technology is booming in development and popularity. Faces are about to take up a much stronger and more trusted position in the digital environment.
Stronger: More widely used, both by companies (police, security professionals, the government) and by consumers (picking people up on a camera, as a means to gain access to a protected device or account).
Trusted: The technology behind it is better. Computing power is higher and, vitally important, smartphone cameras and surveillance cameras are taking much better pictures at a higher resolution which improves accurate recognition. Identification systems, like the ones found at border control, are able to distinguish between human faces and fake printed images, videos or masks, defending against fraudulent activity. And industry bodies, like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) are on hand to make vendors perform face recognition tests. About to use a service or device that boasts secure face recognition technology? Make sure they are ‘NIST approved’ or some equivalent. There are a number of different providers out there, and some are less advanced than others.
We are our faces, in a way that is more meaningful and reliable than things like a Facebook profile, legal name, or even a fingerprint will ever be. That’s possibly why there is so much indignation and hurt in the case of ID fraud resulting from data theft. ‘How could you possibly think that person was me?’ you ask. Because they gave you some numbers and letters? I demand to speak to your manager…
The things that currently represent you online, like passwords and usernames, can be changed. If you’re not particularly online safety-minded, they can be accessed and changed quite easily. Fortunately, it’s no longer going to be easy for people to mimic your face in such a way that fools machines, unless they’ve got access to the kind of tech that Tom Cruise waves around in Mission Impossible (he really does like messing with his face!).
So, what’s so special about your face? Everything. Look after it!
By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv