Austin-based Blink Identity, which uses advanced facial recognition technology to identify people regardless of the speed they’re walking in, raised a $1.5M seed round in July led by Sinai Ventures, Live Nation and Techstars.
Previously in May, the startup partnered with Live Nation, the parent company of a ticket sales and distribution company, Ticketmaster to help it match user identity to the ticket and redefine its experience. Live Nation’s quarterly report noted: “(Blink Identity) has cutting-edge facial recognition technology, enabling you to associate your digital ticket with your image, then just walk into the show.”
The partnership and the new funding will now allow the startup to better test its model into the “live event and identity security space” and “run early pilot programs in different venues”.
How Biometric Works
The startup is co-founded by CEO, Mary Haskett and CTO, Alex Kilpatrick, who have previously designed, developed and deployed large scale biometric identification systems internationally. Blink Identity’s website, in fact, claims that their “work with identity in motion technology has resulted in Blink Identity sensors being deployed for operational testing at US military bases around the world.”
But biometric identification, which is a technique that uses unique human characteristics to identify an individual, is not new. It has been around a long time and continues to fascinate numerous startups. There’s evidence that fingerprints were used on clay tablets during Babylonian business transactions in 500 BC. Since then, fingerprints, with the addition of face and retina scan constitute the most of what’s currently being used for recognition.
But how does facial recognition, a market pegged to reach $7.6B by 2022, work when it comes to access to live events? Haskett explains that, “If you buy a ticket, you take a picture with yourself in your phone, you send us a selfie and you enroll. When you walk by the entrance, we have our sensor which takes a picture and matches it to the one you sent us.”
The technology behind this is simple: When an image is submitted, it is processed and converted to a mathematical template which is a unique numerical representation of the image. This template is then compared against stored templates which enables the software to make a confident ‘match’ or ‘no-match’ determination. This seemingly simple technology has far-reaching implications. For instance, a Ticketmaster representative said, “Knowing not just who bought the tickets, but who is sitting in each and every seat, can dramatically change the live event industry in a variety of ways.”
In such scenarios, concerns about privacy are common. The increased personalization can put your personal data at risk but Haskett clarifies that the system is an opt-in. “If people believe their Blink Identity account is an infringement on their personal privacy, people can delete it like they can with their personal social media accounts.” (It’s not clear how users can opt-out or delete their data.) Social networks, on the other hand, are not exactly the paragons of privacy and Blink Identity itself presents its top solution as access to live events where thanks to its technology, it’s “possible to collect usable and shareable data on each person that walks through our biometric entry gateway.” It has also been reported that that there are no actual plans to put this technology into place.
Blink Identity’s Solutions
The startup’s other solutions include healthcare where Blink Identity claims it can help “secure areas easily, and even open a patient’s chart, simply with a doctor’s facial ID recognition” or in commercial buildings where the solution can “not only control initial entry access, but also monitor employee location and space utilization”. But these solutions merely scratch the surface as one of its largest—and easily justifiable—use case of facial recognition is in security.
Recently, Amazon claimed that its facial recognition tool, Rekognition, can “identify up to 100 faces in a single image, track people in real time through surveillance cameras, and scan footage from body cameras”. But after a recent exercise, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that the tool had “incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress (disproportionately people of color), identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime.” ACLU concluded that “Face surveillance threatens to chill First Amendment-protected activity like engaging in protest or practicing religion, and it can be used to subject immigrants to further abuse from the government.” Another study at MIT found that when the person in the photo is a white man, the software is right 99 percent of the time. But the darker the skin, the more errors arise — up to nearly 35 percent for images of darker skinned women.
The founders of Blink Identity do not diss these privacy concerns. In fact, CTO Kilpatrick wrote in his own blog that he agrees with ACLU and that “this goes against the principles this country was founded on.”
In the same vein, Blink Identity claims that it is taking privacy seriously. Its website explains that they communicate clearly what personal information they are collecting and “delete data that does not have an agreed upon business use”. But controversies aside, the startup thinks of facial recognition as an impending technological advancement and has continued to innovate.
In September, the startup was invited to participate in the 2018 Biometric Technology Rally, sponsored by the US Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. Blink Identity says that it was the only full in-motion face/iris system participating in the rally. (Iris scanning entails the iris being photographed under IR illumination. The image is then converted into binary which “makes its easy to compare and very accurate.”) The rally’s results for the startup proved to be extraordinary where it claimed that it not only acquired and processed an image in approximately 250 milliseconds, but also that its failure to acquire rate was lower than the other systems.
However, when it comes to facial recognition, false matches are an unavoidable problem and one faced by most companies trying facial recognition from Apple, Facebook to Kairos. While a secure facial recognition technology can be used for consenting consumers, the concern is whether it can be used for law enforcement. Kilpatrick writes in his blog that “If you have a watch list at a stadium (for example)…you have a 100,000 person stadium and a face recognition system that is correct 99.99% of the time, you will still have 10 false matches.”
The US is already using facial recognition tech at airports where, recently, the software flagged a person as his face did not match his passport photo. A search followed which revealed his real ID—from the Republic of Congo—in his shoe. Despite the recent application, a system with 99.99% accuracy is rare, and therefore, the question is if we can detain, inconvenience, or wrongly arrest ten people to find that one supposed culprit?
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