Unfamiliar face recognition: security, surveillance and smartphones

David J. Robertson, Mike Burton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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A person's ability to recognize familiar faces across a wide range of viewing conditions is one of the most impressive facets of human cognition. As shown in Figure 1, it is easy to conclude, for a known individual, that each image in the set shows the same person (British Prime Minister David Cameron), despite a wide range of variation in viewing angle, physical appearance, camera and lighting. In fact, familiar face recognition performance is often at or near ceiling level, even when the images are of poor quality [1] or artificially distorted. [2] At first glance, the aptitude for familiar face recognition
may suggest a similar level of expertise for the recognition of unfamiliar faces, thus the reliance on faceto- photo ID for identity verification. [3] This is not the case, as recent research shows people are surprisingly poor at recognizing new instances of an unfamiliar person.
The poor recognition of unfamiliar faces is a concern for the United States. Many preliminary screenings involve facial recognition by security agents. In order for this method to be effective, more robust training for security agents needs to be established. The Department of Defense utilizes facial and iris recognition technologies in order to eliminate human error in identifying persons of interest during surveillance operations. [4] DoD guidelines should be implemented by security agent guidance programs to ensure best practices in identification of potential threats.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-21
Number of pages8
JournalThe Journal of The United States Homeland Defence and Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC)
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016


  • face recognition
  • human cognition
  • identity verification


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