What is Facial Recognition, and How Does It Work?

facial recognition

What is Facial Recognition, and How Does It Work?

Key Points

  • Facial recognition is the process of recognizing a person by analyzing their facial features.
  • Facial recognition is the identification of a person from digital images or videos.
  • Facial recognition has a long history that dates back to the 1960s.

Facial recognition is a relatively new technology that has potentially significant implications for law enforcement and the modern world.

This technology is one of the most talked about topics in security, privacy, and user experience. Facial recognition technologies use computer algorithms to compare people’s features against a database of faces.

The algorithms can measure specific components. These include:

  • the distance between your eyes,
  • the depth of your eye sockets,
  • the distance from forehead to chin,
  • the shape of your cheekbones,
  • the contour of the lips, ears, and chin.

Facial recognition technology has been steadily growing in popularity. It can now be used to identify an individual in pictures and videos with high accuracy. But what exactly is this technology?

How does it work? And why do companies care so much about keeping track of their employees’ whereabouts? Here’s everything you need to know about the science behind facial recognition; what it can and cannot do, how it works, and more.

What is Facial Recognition: Complete Explanation

facial recognition
Facial recognition uses AI and computerized algorithms to identify people based on their facial features.

©nazar kantora/Shutterstock.com

Facial recognition is the process of recognizing a person by analyzing their facial features. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) and computerized algorithms to identify people based on their facial structure and characteristics. The technology uses an algorithm to compare facial features in a photo or s video with the facial features found on other images. The program can then identify the person who appears in both sets of images.

Naturally, this type of technology offers many potential uses in everyday life. But it also raises privacy concerns. After all, it can be used by law enforcement and social media companies to track people’s online activities. As a result, some are concerned that this technology will allow governments to control their citizens more easily. In particular, that these technologies will make it possible for hackers and government agencies to access personal information.

Facial Recognition: An Exact Definition

Facial recognition is the identification of a person from digital images or videos by comparing certain facial features. This method of biometric identification can be done in real-time to authenticate an individual. It can also be used to search for a specific person based on their known attributes. Facial recognition software tries to match an image with one that has been stored in a database. The process typically includes three steps:

  • acquiring images of faces,
  • extracting features,
  • matching features against existing facial representations.

The algorithm mathematical measurements. These include the distances between various points on the face, and together create a template of all possible human looks. The closer two images are to each other, the more likely they are to show a positive match.

Once two templates are matched up, it may be possible to take action. This makes unlocking doors or paying for goods through the visual confirmation of identity possible.

The History of Facial Recognition

Facial recognition has a long history that dates back to the 1960s. Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe, a mathematician and computer scientist, initially created a system of metrics to categorize photographs of faces. In fact, Bledsoe is regarded as the unofficial father of facial recognition technology because of his work.

Authorities’ interest in Bledsoe’s work quickly grew. Organizations also created facial recognition systems from the 1970s through the 1990s. Although these seem quite primitive when compared to present-day technology, the development of these systems paved the way for contemporary facial recognition software.

Focused Beginnings

facial recognition
With the latest smartphones, users can choose from a range of biometric authentication options, including facial recognition.

©TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock.com

However, facial recognition technology was not widely used until the release of the smartphone. With these advancements, face recognition technologies are no longer just used by the government. Now, people use this type of identification to unlock their smartphones and computers, or to identify friends in photographs on Facebook. In addition, businesses such as casinos can use facial recognition software for security purposes.

In some countries, integrating facial recognition into national identity cards has been suggested. This step could make border crossing much easier. Interestingly, the year 2001 is frequently cited as a turning point for face recognition technologies. At that time, law enforcement agents employed face recognition technology to identify people in the crowd at Super Bowl XXXV. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida established its facial recognition database that same year.

The Widespread Use of Facial Recognition

But it wasn’t until the 2010s that computing power increased to the point where facial recognition became a more common function. In fact, Osama bin Laden’s identification as a terrorist was established by facial recognition technology in 2011. After Freddie Gray’s death from a spinal injury in 2015, which he sustained while being transported in a police van, the Baltimore police department employed facial recognition technology to identify people participating in protests.

Consumers are increasingly using facial recognition on their smartphones and other personal devices. In 2015, Windows Hello and Android’s Trusted Face enabled users to log into their smartphones via their cameras. In 2017, Apple’s iPhone X debuted its Face ID face recognition technology.


facial recognition
Unlike many other biometric systems, facial recognition can be used for general surveillance.


This technology has sparked debate, with some calling it a violation of privacy. Cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston have outlawed the use of facial recognition by governments. In the summer of 2020, following Black Lives Matter rallies against police brutality, major tech giants, including Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM, stated that they would no longer sell their face recognition technology to law enforcement agencies.

How Does Facial Recognition Work?

Facial recognition works by searching a database of images to find matches. The program then selects the most similar images to determine a match. The success rate varies depending on how many people are in the database, how good the quality of the photo is, and how closely it resembles a given individual.

There are also some limitations when matching faces with different skin tones. But facial recognition has been improving over time, mainly thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision algorithms. By training an algorithm on millions of images of human faces, computers have become more efficient at recognizing them. They can now even read subtle details like eyebrows or glasses that might be blocking part of someone’s face. Facial technology systems differ, but in general, they work as follows:

#1: Face detection

Face detection is the first step in facial recognition. This step involves taking an image and identifying where all of the faces are within that image. The facial recognition software then analyzes which parts of the image correspond to each face it finds, and stores that information for later use.

#2: Face analysis

The facial analysis portion of facial recognition involves scrutinizing the shape and size of each face to analyze it as a possible match for another person’s identity. This is done by measuring angles between features like eyes and noses, and comparing how much space there is between various features.

#3: Converting the image to data

Once captured, the photo is converted into a mathematical representation of the person’s face. Next, the mathematical representation is compared to other mathematical representations to create a faceprint. A faceprint can be used to identify a person or to see if two people are similar enough to be related.

#4: Finding a match

In this step, the facial recognition software compares your face to a database of possible matches. Once an image of the face has been found, it is compared to other images stored in the database. If there are multiple matches, the most accurate one will be selected.

Facial recognition is said to be the most natural of all biometric measurements. This makes intuitive sense, given that we often recognize ourselves and others by looking at faces rather than thumbprints and irises. It is believed that facial recognition technology analyzes more than half of the world’s population on a regular basis.

What are the Applications of Facial Recognition?

Facial recognition can be used by a number of industries for a variety of purposes. These include:

Marketing and advertising

Facial recognition is becoming an increasingly important part of marketing strategies for both companies and consumers. Companies use face-scanning apps to identify the customers who purchase their products or services, then send targeted ads based on those purchases.

Finding missing persons

facial recognition
Police often cite the ability to find missing children as one of the primary benefits of facial recognition technology.

©Trismegist san/Shutterstock.com

Facial recognition is increasingly being used in police investigations and the identification of suspects to help solve crimes and find missing persons. The technology can be used to identify missing people because they have been reported as such. It works by taking a photograph or video of a person and comparing it with images stored in a database of similar faces. If the person has been reported missing, the system will then compare their facial features against those already in the database and return an alert if there is a match.


facial recognition
Facial biometrics can also be used to access bank accounts.


Facial recognition technology has also been used to verify customers’ identities during banking transactions. Customers can authorize transactions by looking at their smartphone or computer instead of utilizing one-time passwords. This helps reduce fraud and identity theft by preventing criminals from using stolen identities to open bank accounts or credit cards.

Unlocking phones

facial recognition
Setting up a facial recognition lock on your smartphone requires an initial scan of your face.


Facial recognition technology allows easy access to smartphones and other mobile devices, especially those with biometric data stored on them. By scanning the face of someone who has been authorized to use their phone for an app or game, facial recognition technology can unlock them without needing PIN codes or passwords. The biometric information acquired from photos and videos is also stored in an encrypted format on the phone’s operating system, making it impossible for anyone besides the owner to access this data without knowing their password.

Airports and border control

facial recognition
Airlines are increasingly using facial recognition technology at check-in, baggage drop, security, and during boarding.

©1000 Words/Shutterstock.com

Facial recognition can speed up security checkpoints, allowing people to get through lines more quickly and efficiently. It can also save time by helping authorities identify passengers faster if there is a security breach or terrorist threat.

Improving retail experiences

facial recognition
Facial recognition technology can help retailers flag known shoplifters as soon as they enter the store.


Face recognition technology has the potential to enhance consumer shopping experiences. For instance, in-store kiosks might identify customers, recommend products based on their past purchases, and send them in the right direction. By using “face pay” technology, customers may be able to bypass lengthy checkout queues.

Law enforcement

Law enforcement agencies use facial recognition software to determine the identity of a person they suspect of committing a crime. This can be done by comparing images of unknown suspects with images stored in databases, or by comparing live pictures with archived ones. This software helps law enforcement identify criminals by matching their faces to mugshots, driver’s license photos, or other photographs.

The results are compared with the current database, and if there is a match, then the individuals’ identities can be confirmed and charged accordingly. The technology can also be used to verify identities at protests and other political gatherings.

Tracking student or worker attendance

facial recognition
Face recognition is used in student attendance systems, tracking attendance at events, and access control


©MDV Edwards/Shutterstock.com

Facial recognition software can be used in schools to verify if a student is attending class. This technology can also be used to check attendance or track students who skip school. Also, employers can track employee attendance by having employees check in and out of their workplaces using facial recognition technology.

Examples of Facial Recognition in the Real World

In the real world, facial recognition technology has been used in a variety of ways:

  • Apple: The company uses face recognition technology to unlock its devices, log in to apps, and make purchases.
  • Traveling: British Airways utilizes facial recognition to make it easier for passengers from the United States to board their planes. Passengers’ faces can be examined by a camera to verify their identity. They can board their planes without having to produce a passport or boarding pass.
  • Insurance: To reduce fraud, Cigna, a US-based healthcare insurer, permits customers in China to make health insurance claims signed with a photo rather than a written signature.
  • Banking: HSBC and Chase already use Apple’s FaceID to allow clients to log into their mobile banking apps. Other financial institutions are trying face recognition to allow clients to confirm online purchases using the cameras on their phones.
  • Facebook: Facebook uses facial recognition technology to automatically tag people in photos. The feature is enabled by default but can be turned off if you don’t want Facebook to use your face for the purpose of identifying you.

UP Next…

Frequently Asked Questions

What is facial recognition?

Facial recognition is the identification of a person from digital images or videos by their facial features. This method of biometric identification can either be done in real-time to authenticate an individual, or to search for a specific person based on known attributes. Facial recognition software tries to match an image with one that has been stored in a database.

What are the benefits of facial recognition?

Facial recognition technology improves the convenience and safety of everyday activities, such as banking, healthcare, and shopping. It can allow for more secure access to places of business, help in preventing all sorts of fraud, and make internet services safer.

How does facial recognition work?

Face recognition systems use computer algorithms to identify specific, characteristic features on a person’s face. These features, such as the distance between the eyes or the contour of the chin, are then mathematically represented and compared to data on other faces in a face recognition database.

Is facial recognition accurate?

According to a paper published in 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSI), accuracy improves when identification techniques are employed to match people to clear, steady photos, such as a passport photo or a mugshot.

According to the paper, when used in this manner, facial recognition algorithms can attain accuracy rates of up to 99.97 percent on the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Facial Recognition Vendor Test. In the real world, however, accuracy rates are often lower.

What are the privacy risks of facial recognition?

Users of facial recognition software run the risk of having their identities stolen. People cannot just change their faces, unlike a password. As a result, hackers target businesses that use facial recognition technology.

To top