Facial recognition tech could help trace Boston bomb suspects

April 19, 2013

People near the site of the first bomb blast (credit: Aaron “tango” Tang/Wikimedia Commons)

Experts say the FBI may be able to use other images from the scene of Monday’s bomb attacks in Boston.— together with facial recognition software — to search through identity databases.

The approach is likely to become more common in the future as new technology makes using facial recognition on surveillance and bystander imagery more reliable, MIT Technology Review reports.

Deploying facial recognition software in the Boston investigation isn’t straightforward because the images available are very different from the evenly lit, frontal, passport-style photos stored in law enforcement databases.

Such mug shots can be matched with about 99 percent accuracy, says Anil Jain, a professor at Michigan State expert who works on facial recognition, a figure that falls to about 50 percent for images of good quality but with added complications such as a person wearing a hat or glasses.

That search could be done manually, but the FBI will also likely have access to software that could speed the process by matching images and video footage that show the same scene or area, says Brian Martin, director of biometric research at MorphoTrust, a company that provides facial recognition technology to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Facial recognition algorithms struggle once a person’s face is turned by more than about 20 degrees, says Martin, but software from his company can correct turns of up to 45 degrees. It does this using built-in knowledge of facial geometry and by filling in the hidden side of a face by copying from the visible side.

With funding from the FBI, Jain is working on software for matching faces from low quality surveillance video against existing image databases. Another project is developing a system that can search a database of faces for a match with a sketch drawn by a forensic artist or a partial or outdated photo.

Other researchers are testing more fundamental rethinks of facial recognition algorithms. Marios Savvides, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon and director of its Cylab Biometrics Center, has developed technology that can create an accurate high-resolution image of a face from a poor resolution one, and which can correct for faces turned partly away from the camera.

Savvide’s software matches faces turned to the side by working out what the faces on file would look like when turned by the same angle, and also by tracking features that are still visible. That avoids having to assume the hidden side of a face matches the visible one, as with in MorphoTrust’s technology, says Saviddes.

(Credit: FBI)

Since this was published, the FBI published a better image of the suspects. The suspect on the right, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a Russian, of Cambridge, Mass, was killed in a standoff with police in Watertown, Mass.; as of 6:40 AM ET, the suspect of the left (his brother, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19) is still a subject of a massive manhunt. — Editor