Facial Recognition System: An Overview

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Ever wondered how Law Enforcement Agencies recognize and arrest offenders through the use of facial features?, Or how some technological devices recognizes your facial features and uses them as a means of unlocking such devices?, Or how some banking systems, online websites, supermarkets, and many more make use of facial systems for surveillance or as a means of recognition and detection of customers?. The answers to these questions lies in understanding how the facial recognition technology works. This article seeks to give an insight on the facial recognition system by giving a brief history, use cases of this technology with it effect on data privacy and protection,  and it pros and cons.


What is The Facial Recognition System?

A facial recognition system is a technology capable of matching a human face from a digital image or a video frame against a database of faces, typically employed to authenticate users through ID verification services, works by pinpointing and measuring facial features from a given image.[i] It is a method used in verifying an individual’s identity through their facials using the biometric technology. Facial technology detects, captures, and verifies an individual’s facial features by processing the database in order to find a match.

A Brief History of The Facial Recognition System

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A research team led by Woodrow W. Bledsoe ran experiments between 1964 and 1966 to see whether ‘programming computers’ could recognize human faces.[ii] Although their system was not of the current and existing technological standard, Woodrow Bledsoe alongside his research team were regarded as the unofficial pioneers of the facial recognition system.

The findings of Bledsoe’s research drew the attention of Law Enforcement Agencies as they began to develop their versions of facial recognition technology. This led to the emergence of varieties of facial recognition systems, and with the advancement in technological inventions such as machine learning, deep learning, biometric software, and camera technologies, facial recognition technology was developed up to the modern standard. Currently, facial recognition systems are not only used by Law Enforcement Agencies as various companies and businesses have adopted this technology.

Use Cases

Facial recognition system can be applied in various aspects of our day to day activities. Some of these use cases among others include;

Law Enforcement Agencies: A number of Law Enforcement Agencies uses facial recognition in apprehending criminals. The U.S FBI uses this techniques as a means of investigating cases. It is also used by custom officials to detect those who violate the law. Facial recognition technologies aid Law Enforcement Agencies in monitoring people. Custom officials at Washington Dulles International Airport made their first arrest using facial recognition in August of 2018, catching an impostor trying to enter the country.[iii] Surveillance cameras also use facial recognition system for security measures.

Identity Verification: various facial recognition systems are used in ID verification in order to prevent identity fraud and identity theft. Thus, with the aid of biometric technologies, many companies now provide face identity services.

Mobile Devices: one of the most popular use cases of facial recognition is the use of this technology as a means of unlocking mobile devices, this serves as an alternative for password, or fingerprint. Facial recognition system authenticate the user of a smart device through the smart device’s front camera. Apple introduced Face ID on the flagship iPhone X as a biometric authentication successor to the Touch ID, a fingerprint based system.[iv]

Social Media: Facebook is one of the social media network which uses facial recognition in tagging people automatically, using photos. Overtime, Facebook has made it facial recognition features very flexible by giving consumers the right to opt in or out of the services in order to suit them and avoid the infringement of its consumers’ data privacy.

Stores/Supermarkets:  facial recognition can be used by retailers in their stores to improve their customers’ experiences. Facial recognition could be used to recognize customers and suggest the kind of products available for them. Retailers also adopt facial payment system for their customers. Stores can also use facial recognition system for surveillance with the aim of boosting their security system.


Some of the advantages of facial recognition system are as follows:

Usefulness to Law Enforcement Agencies: A key advantage of facial recognition is the aid it provides to Law Enforcement and Government Agencies. Facial recognition can assist the Police and all other Law Enforcement Agencies in identifying criminals. It can also assist them in finding missing persons, victims of human trafficking, and victims of abuse. Law Enforcement Agencies use facial recognition system in Airports, and all other public places in order to track down perpetrators of various crimes.

Other Security Purposes: Facial recognition system is used by retail stores for surveillance. It assist them in monitoring customers and their activities. It also assist them in knowing the kind of products their regular customers need based on preference. Companies and schools use facial recognition system in tracking their employers and students. Various organizations use facial recognition system as a substitute for password. Most mobile devices now have the facial recognition  system which users can decide to use as a means of unlocking their devices.

Convenience: The wide acceptance of facial technology has led to it widespread application in our daily activities. Most stores, companies, and other businesses now use facial recognition system as a means of payment thereby, making it easier and more convenient for their customers.

Quick Recognition: Companies and Consumers alike find the facial recognition technology to be very much faster compared to the usage of passwords and pins. It is also safer as there are low chances of cyber attack and hacking. Some websites have also adopted the technology for it to serve as a means of recognizing users of their websites without too much delay.


Some of the disadvantages of facial recognition system are as follows:

Lack of Accuracy:  Facial recognition systems are not completely accurate as they are prone to recognizing the wrong target. A slight change in facial expression can lead to a wrongful identification. Also, as an individual ages, the facial recognition system find it hard to recognize and identify such individual as a result of changes in the individual’s facials. This makes the technology unreliable. Critics of this system have posited that the Law Enforcement Agencies could identify an innocent person in place of their target criminal which could lead to wrongful prosecution.

Facial Recognition System and Data Privacy: Although facial recognition technology is said to aid security measures especially for Law Enforcement Agencies, critics of this technology have emphasized on its infringement of people’s data privacy. The Government and Law Enforcement Agencies use this technology in tracking down criminals in public arenas thereby, having access to innocent people’s data. This limits the freedom of innocent persons as it is nearly impossible for people to avoid those facial recognition systems that are placed in public places and this gives Law Enforcement Agencies access to one’s data without consent. Those in support of the facial recognition technology argued that the system has been accepted globally and that a number of people prefer to use it as a means of unlocking their devices, using them on social media platforms, using them in accessing some websites, and so on. However, this usage is totally based on consent unlike what happens when Law Enforcement Agencies access their data without their knowledge and consent.

As a result of these controversies that revolves around this technology, some countries and cities have decided to ban the use of facial recognition system by the government and all Law Enforcement Agencies order to avoid the invasion of people’s privacy. In 2020, the European Commission said it was considering a ban on facial recognition technology in public spaces for up to five years, to allow time to work out a regulatory framework to prevent privacy and ethical abuses.[v] Currently, some countries allow the usage of facial recognition with certain limitations.

Anti-Facial Recognition System

Over the years researchers have found various ways in which people can dodge facial recognition systems. Research Institutes have created anti-facial recognition glasses that makes the face of the user of such glasses unrecognizable. It has also been confirmed that make-ups and specific haircuts prevent facial recognition system from recognizing or detecting the face. Research have also shown that this technology find it hard to recognize women and people of specific ethnic groups.

Research have shown that face masks reduces the accuracy rate of facial recognition system as the system fails to recognize facial features in such state. A 2020 NIST study tested popular one-to-one matching systems and found a failure rate between five and fifty percent on masked individuals.[vi]


To sum it up, facial recognition system though still in its infancy, has gained wide recognition and significance in modern times. However, the system has a lot of controversies surrounding its usage especially by Law Enforcement Agencies. Like all other technologies, facial recognition technology has the chances of making either positive or negative impact depending on how it is used. Thus, it is safe to say that there are uncertainties regarding the future of the facial recognition system as it stand the chances of being banned, or being regulated as the case maybe.


Halima Ummi Ismail is a law student from the Faculty of Law Bayero University, Kano. She has a keen interest in writing and making research.

She can be contacted via email: ismailhalima99@gmail.com



[i] Wikipedia ‘Facial recognition system’ <https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_recognition_system> accessed 3 October 2021

[ii] Thales ‘Facial recognition history’ <https://www.thalesgroup.com/en/markets/digital-identity-and-security/government/inspired/history-of-facial-recognition> accessed 3 October 2021

[iii] Steve Symanovich  (2021) ‘What is facial recognition?, How facial recognition works’ <https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-iot-how-facial-recognition-software-works.html#:~:text=Facial%20recognition%20is%20a%20way,faces%20to%20find%20a%20match.> accessed 3 October 2021

[iv] Wikipedia (n.i)

[v] Kaspersky ‘What is Facial Recognition – Definition and Explanation’ <https://www.kaspersky.com/resource-center/definitions/what-is-facial-recognition> accessed 4 2021

[vi] Wikipedia (n.i)

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