Seeing eye-to-eye: The mass-market adoption of facial verification

November 15, 2017

Who are you? And how can you prove it? It’s the age-old question that lies at the heart of the arms race to prevent fraud, protect privacy, and onboard new customers at scale. In an age where customers increasingly choose digital interactions over face-to-face ones, stronger and more secure authentication is needed to ensure that businesses truly know who they’re dealing with.

It was almost 60 years ago that the first experiments with computer-based facial recognition were devised. But since then, widespread adoption has been slowed by enterprising fraudsters who simply use a photo of their target to cheat the system. Now, a new wave of facial verification tech is tackling the problem head-on.

Blink and you’ll miss it

One answer to this challenge is the “blink to prove liveness” approach that’s been implemented by some identity verification providers. Unfortunately, it’s a method that falls short of its good intentions. Blinking-based solutions can be easily spoofed by cutting eye holes into a printout of the target’s face, and blinking behind it. Still, many view this stopgap measure as a permanent solution. Just last year, Mastercard, the guardian of our purse strings, debuted an app that allowed people to pay for good or services by simply blinking. But Mastercard isn’t the only big brand experimenting with facial verification, nor the most advanced.

Apple of my eye

With the introduction of Apple’s Face ID, accuracy and ease-of-use are combined into a single, beautiful user interface. Though currently reserved for the fortunate few who can afford a USD $1,000 phone, the iPhone X has succeeded where Samsung and others have failed, by incorporating robust and accurate 3-D facial verification into mainstream commodity technology. Significantly, the iPhone X does away with the fingerprint reader, which identifies a user, but doesn’t authenticate them. Instead, Apple’s Face ID analyses over “30,000 invisible dots to create a high-fidelity 3-D model of your face which isn’t found in print or 2-D digital photographs”. These security measures are a big step on from blinking-based solutions, and show how seriously Apple takes building a foolproof ‘anti-spoofing’ approach to facial authentication.

Smile and Pay

If Face ID seems futuristic, consider Apple’s Chinese counterparts, who have already leapfrogged most Western countries in their application of facial verification. Feeling peckish? Ant Financial, the financial services spinoff of e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently announced ‘Smile and Pay’ where customers at KFC in eastern China can now pay with just their faces. Targeted towards the younger generation, ‘Smile and Pay’ puts the user experience first, enabling users to satisfy their tender chicken yearnings while bypassing their wallet or smartphone altogether. The potential issue is that with an always-on facial recognition solution, our faces can be constantly analysed and advertising tailored in real-time in response to our reactions. While that’s great for advertisers, it makes many consumers understandably squeamish. So far, though, the convenience and utility of this application seems to be outweighing any privacy concerns, paving the path to mass market adoption.

Facing up to Fraud

But even facial verification solutions like Face ID and Smile and Pay fall short of true authentication. This technology will verify your face is the same one you signed up with – but not that it belongs to you. The only way to securely authenticate an identity is to combine facial recognition – and crucially, facial liveness – with a trusted government identity document, such as a passport or driver's license. But if blinking doesn’t cut it when it comes to proving liveness, what does? Multi-factor liveness solutions offer the most robust fraud protection. Asking users to repeat a sequence of numbers and perform a random movement proves they’re present, and provides a live picture of their face which can then be compared to their identity document. Faced with increasingly sophisticated fraudsters, a radically different approach which combines a number of features is the best way to ensure true authentication.

Technological innovations like these are a huge leap forward in the way that we prove, use and store our identities in an ever increasing digital world. While there’s undoubtedly still progress to be made, what’s clear is that we’re entering a new age of identity verification. As we spend more and more of our lives online, unlocking robust and secure authentication is only becoming more important. Facial Verification might just be the key.

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