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The Benefits and Threats of Using Facial Recognition in Mass Transit

STElectronic (Singapore Technology) is developing a system to replace the current travel card system used in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). But there is concern about the use of such a system and the potential implications of Big Brother tracking your every step.

Facial Recognition

Facial Recognition is a powerful tool that is slowly making its way into everyday life. For example, cameras use facial recognition to identify faces to focus on in a photo—my camera even identifies pet faces such as cats and dogs. Law enforcement is testing systems that can identify criminals in large crowds. There are even developments in the automobile industry which detect a distracted driver based on facial recognition.
Now Singapore-based tech company, ST Electronic, wants to expand facial recognition's uses into for the MRT.

The Proposed System

STElectronic aims to develop a facial recognition system that may replace the use of travel cards on the MRT. The plan is to combine two concepts—the Interactive Traveller Terminal (ITT) and the Advanced Fare Gate (AFG) system—to reduce the time taken to process passengers and therefore increase the efficiency of the MRT.
But the move will also be advantageous to customers as, instead of needing to get out travel cards (which can be lost or stolen), the system will use facial recognition to identify individuals.

The Mass Rapid Transit system hopes to employ the new system to increase efficiency. Image courtesy of Calvin Teo via Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, the software that drives the system can process up to 60 people per minute whereas the current EZ-link card system can only process 40 per minute. On top of the speed increase, the use of facial recognition also enables directly linking the AFG with post-paid methods where people passing through a gate are automatically identified and their account debited.

Customers who do not wish to use the facial recognition system can opt for an RFID card system where the travel card merely needs to be on their person when passing through a gate.
However, there are those who feel that using a facial recognition system in such a public context may represent a serious threat to privacy in the growing world of the internet and data collection.

Invasion of Privacy

There is a growing concern about the use of facial recognition for fast payments of services and goods. Dr. Terence Sim, a professor at the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore, recently wrote a dissenting opinion piece in The Independent, Singapore about the proposed system. In it, Sim made a strong argument about "Proof of Authorization" vs "Proof of Identification".

When you purchase a cinema ticket to watch a film, Sim says, the ticket is proof of authorization which essentially means that you have purchased the right to watch said film. When asked for the ticket before being let in, you display the proof of authorization where the only information being recorded is the record of purchase indicating that somebody watched the film. However, your identification is not stored by the cinema so, if the records were searched, your information (such as name, picture, address, etc.) would not be included.
If, however, you are lucky enough to look younger than the age requirement for a mature-rated film, the relevant employees will challenge your age. This requires Proof of Identity which proves your age against your photo. Even in this case, however, this information is not stored so, again, the records do not hold potentially private information.


User data is constantly being mined, bought, and sold. Image courtesy of Yuri Samoilov.

But how would you feel if cinemas recorded all your detail about films that you have watched? While it may sound like paranoia, it is amazing how often personal information is sold to companies against your will which usually results in spam mail, spam emails, and nuisance calls.

Personal information is also often stolen by hackers for malicious intentions such as identification theft and infiltration of bank accounts. One major example is the Sony Playstation Network outage of 2011 where 77 million accounts were compromised and prevented users from accessing the network. This means that 77 million potential customers had their personal information stolen which included the names, addresses, and even credit card information of some 12 million users.
Tying our identities, our very faces, to records of our travel habits arguably creates another facet to the data kept on each of us by marketing firms—and it may also make us more vulnerable to information-age aggressors.

Opening Pandora's Box

Currently, facial recognition software is not implemented in mass transit systems around the world or in any large commercial application, for that matter. There are systems in place that attempt to track customers and users such as shop loyalty cards which record what you purchase and websites that place cookies onto browsers to find out where you go on the web. Such systems are relatively easy to guard against so that you can remain anonymous. You currently have the choice to disable cookies, not utilize loyalty cards, and even purchase goods with cash to prevent a data trail of your habits.
But using facial recognition in the MRT may be a Pandora’s box which essentially gives the “All Clear” to the world to implement such systems. Suddenly, you may be required to have a photo of yourself on a server for the system to work, which links you as an individual to your purchases and use of services. If this information were to be leaked or stolen, the recipient of that data could have enough information to appear as you online as well as on paper.


US Law enforcement is slowly increasing their use of biometrics to identify potential criminals. Image courtesy of Gerald Nino/CPB.

The Give and Take of Technology

As with any new technology, there will be pros, cons, and moral questions. Facial recognition could be vital in a world with a growing population that requires efficiency to function correctly. Instead of wasting time getting debit cards out and contributing to a growing queue in the shop, your face would be enough to complete a transaction. But at the same time, any system that stores the image of your face (which is linked to your bank account and other personal information) needs to be secure against identification theft attacks.
At the end of the day, the general public needs to start thinking about how important data privacy really is and whether the benefits of incorporating systems such as facial recognition outweigh the potential problems that may arise.

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