Why face recognition isn’t scary — yet

Note: I created this post for my professional blog:  Discovering Identity.  Yet the implications this advancing facial recognition technology has on our personal freedoms made it pertinent to our I Love Freedom theme.  Enjoy!

Thanks to Malisa Vincenti, leader of the LinkedIn Group Security & Technology – Critical Infrastructure Network & Forum, for highlighting the CNN article entitled “Why face recognition isn’t scary – yet.”


Much of the article was dedicated to describing the benefits and deficiencies of facial recognition software used by online services like Facebook, Picasa and iPhoto to make it easier for users to keep track of photographs.  Speaking of such functionality,  Michael Sipe, vice president of product development at Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition, a Carnegie Mellon University split-off company that makes face-recognizing software said these types of photo programs are a response to the hassles of keeping track of growing digital photo collections.

"In general, there’s this tsunami of visual information — images and video — and the tools that people have to make sense of all that information haven’t kept pace with the growth of the production of that information," he said. "What we have is a tool to help extract meaning from that information by using the most important part of that media, which is people."

It is interesting that one of the most distinguishing attribute of a person’s identity – his or her face – is so difficult for computers to recognize.  We humans often say, “I can remember faces much better than names,” yet computers are just the opposite.  It turns out that a person’s smile, which may be one of the most easily-remembered feature of the human face (for us humans, at least), is the most difficult for computers to comprehend:

Anil Jain, a distinguished professor of computer science at Michigan State University, said it’s still not easy, however, for computers to identify faces from photos — mostly because the photos people post to the internet are so diverse.

Computers get confused when a photo is too dark, if it’s taken from a weird angle, if the person is wearing a scarf, beard or glasses or if the person in the photo has aged significantly, he said.

Smiling can even be a problem.

"The face is like a deformable surface," he said. "When you smile, different parts of the face get affected differently. It’s not just like moving some object from one position to another," which would be easier for a computer to read.

So … what will happen when this technology matures and makes the leap from family-friendly Facebook to applications in real live security or survellance applications?

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the motives behind the technology are what worry him.

Governments and corporations intend to use facial recognition software to track the public and to eliminate privacy, he said, noting that automatically identifying people in public in the U.S., when they are not suspected of a crime, could be a violation of constitutional rights.

When facial recognition comes to surveillance cameras, which are already in place, "you’re no longer racing through iPhoto to figure out how many pictures of Barbara you have," Rotenberg said. "You’re walking around in public and facing cameras that know who you are. And I think that’s a little creepy."

I suppose this is like many other technologies – there are an abundance of positive applications, and the potential for terribly nefarious uses.

For example, if facial recognition can be used to identify  terrorists so they could be detained prior to boarding airplanes, we would generally think that was a good application. 

Similarly, if I could be granted entrance to my corporate office building or be logged onto necessary computer systems just by smiling (or frowning) into a camera, the building and computer systems might be more secure and the present-day use of passwords or ID cards might go the way of the buggy whip.

However, if an abusive husband used facial recognition software to stalk his estranged wife, or if the government successfully tracked every movement its citizens made in the normal course of events, we would generally think of those applications as negative.

I have a crazy habit of smiling and waving at security cameras I see in airports or banks or convenience stores. Who knows what is happening on the other side?  At the present level of today’s technology, I’m probably being recorded and not much more.  In a few years, however, the sophisticated software behind the camera will probably recognize Mark Dixon and report my antics to the NSA.  That will surely make me frown, not smile, when I wave to the ubiquitous cameras.

Dearth of Leadership Take 2, or Leadership by Litigation

image In a recent post, I expressed dismay that we had a terrible lack of genuine leadership at the top in federal government, as evidenced by the poor leadership in the oil spill crisis.

Now, Take 2!

True to form, the administration chose to divide and alienate rather than leverage the power of the “best and brightest” to solve a significant challenge – that of illegal immigration – by suing the State of Arizona over the passage of HB 1070, the illegal immigration enforcement law.

I am not anti-immigration.  I actually have a deep respect for our immigrant brothers and sisters.  However, I am also a passionate supporter of the rule of law within a society of free people.  Our freedom is dependent on the willingness of citizens to obey the law and the willingness of government to enforce the law.

At the same time, I am not a proponent of HB 1070, because I believe it ignores the larger reality that sizable portions of our economy currently depend on currently-illegal immigrants and that comprehensive immigration reform is needed before the overall problem will be solved. 

However, it galls me that the administration would sue Arizona for attempting to enforce the existing immigration laws the federal government has failed (or refused) to enforce already.  By refusing to enforce federal law already on the books, the federal government has imposed huge financial and social burdens on the states. Perhaps we should sue the feds for reimbursement.  Oh, I think Governor Janet Napolitano did that before selling out to the current administration.  Leadership?

In case anyone cares, my comprehensive reform proposal includes the following major points:

  1. Provide a liberal guest worker program, recognizing that immigrants are an integral part of the US economy.  The program will make sure they pay taxes, insurance, medical, education, etc. Over time, if they comply with strict guidelines, they may earn citizenship. 
  2. Provide a way for illegals already in the US to come clean, pay hefty fines, pay taxes, insurance, medical costs, education fees, etc. and work toward citizenship over time if they adhere to strict guidelines. 
  3. Immediately export all illegals who don’t comply with #1 or #2.
  4. Do not make any public services (medical, education, etc.) available to anyone who is not a citizen or can demonstrate compliance with #1 or #2, except in a medical emergency, after which they are immediately exported in line with #3.
  5. Revoke the business license of any employer who hires illegals outside the guest worker program – you, too, Walmart, not just the little guys.
  6. Do not grant citizenship to children born in the US unless at least one of their parents is already a citizen.
  7. Build a high, double, physical wall with electronic surveillance and rigorous countermeasures between the US and Mexico.
  8. Provide national guard troops at the border, equipped with real bullets and orders to use them  to enforce the law.
  9. Enforce national and state immigration law, with the federal government paying the states to enforce the law if the feds choose not to.

While the administration wastes tax payer dollars on fighting HB 1070 in court, and while the supposed “best and brightest” in congress sit on the sidelines and refuse to address immigration reform, I guess we must live with the spirit of Arizona captured in this proposed new Arizona flag:


I applaud the administration of the State of Arizona for choosing to defend HB 1070 vigorously, even though I don’t think the bill gets to the heart of the matter.  Perhaps this action will be a catalyst to encourage the “best and brightest” to intervene and correct the actions of the appalling lack of federal leadership.

Thanks to my friend Stan Ferrin, who sent me the flag photo.

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Are You a Perfect Citizen? I Will Listen and Find Out.

(Note: I published this article first on my professional blog, “Discovering Identity,” but felt the subject matter touched very close to the Security vs. Freedom debate in which we so often find ourselves.)

The Wall Street Journal published an excellent article today entitled, “U.S. Program to Detect Cyber Attacks on Infrastructure” (subscription required),  reviewing a large U.S. government program, named “Perfect Citizen,” with the stated objective to:

“… detect cyber assaults on private U.S. companies and government agencies running critical infrastructure such as the electricity grid and nuclear power plants, according to people familiar with the program.”


We all know that the national infrastructure is vulnerable, as I mentioned recently in my blog about NERC Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Cyber Security Standards. The object of this program appears to be an attempt to discover security holes that may not be CIP compliant, and detect patterns of attack before harm can be done.

U.S. intelligence officials have grown increasingly alarmed about what they believe to be Chinese and Russian surveillance of computer systems that control the electric grid and other U.S. infrastructure. Officials are unable to describe the full scope of the problem, however, because they have had limited ability to pull together all the private data.

How do you tackle this challenge?  Just monitor the network and find “unusual activity” that may suggest a pending cyber attack.

The surveillance by the National Security Agency, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency, would rely on a set of sensors deployed in computer networks for critical infrastructure that would be triggered by unusual activity suggesting an impending cyber attack, though it wouldn’t persistently monitor the whole system.

This accumulation and analysis of vast amounts of data from numerous sensors is a fascinating topic.  Last September, I blogged about work led by Jeff Jonas to analyze large data sets to detect the types of anomalies the NSA are seeking – all to catch threats to the Las Vegas gaming industry.  It would be interesting to know if the NSA is building upon his work to find terrorists before they strike.

Of course, any surveillance program led by the NSA is bound to be controversial, and this is no exception:

Some industry and government officials familiar with the program see Perfect Citizen as an intrusion by the NSA into domestic affairs, while others say it is an important program to combat an emerging security threat that only the NSA is equipped to provide.

Who knows … perhaps some day the NSA wizards might think my blogging efforts are a threat to national security and plant sensors to detect my email, blogging and social networking communications activity to see if something fishy is going on.   After all, I am not a “Perfect Citizen,” whatever that means.  No one is.

"The overall purpose of the [program] is our Government…feel[s] that they need to insure the Public Sector is doing all they can to secure Infrastructure critical to our National Security," said one internal Raytheon email, the text of which was seen by The Wall Street Journal. "Perfect Citizen is Big Brother."

It will be fascinating, in an apprehensive way, to see how this all comes together:

Because the program is still in the early stages, much remains to be worked out, such as which computer control systems will be monitored and how the data will be collected. NSA would likely start with the systems that have the most important security implications if attacked, such as electric, nuclear, and air-traffic-control systems, they said.

I doubt that covert surveillance of US citizens is the initial intent of this program, but unintended consequences are what trouble me.  For some diabolical reason, increasing the amount of power vested in any one person or group of people tends to lead to oppression of others.  And it sounds like this program will put vast informational power in the hands of a few.

Paul Revere – Courage in the Face of Danger

My new freedom friend, Drew Jensen, suggested that I highlight a portion of the famous poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” on my blog today.  Written in 1860 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poem recounts Paul Revere’s thrilling ride through the Boston area to warn his compatriots about the advancing British army.

The following few lines captured the exemplary courage he exhibited in the face of personal and collective danger as the fate of an emerging nation hung in the balance.

And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with it’s heat….

"So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.’


May we all be so courageous in the constant battle for freedom!

Freedom and Politics – A Virtual Cornucopia of Knowledge and Insight

I exchanged emails this evening with a deep thinking, dedicated freedom fighter, Drew Jensen, who has assembled a vast array of documents and links on the subject of freedom and politics, on his aptly named website, “Freedom and Politics.”


The statement included on the photo above is from Patrick Henry:

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, but for the people to restrain the government.”

There is no way I could read all the information Drew has assembled in an evening, or in a week, but I look forward to looking through his collection and highlighting content I think is particularly pertinent to discuss on this blog.

Thanks, Drew, for introducing yourself and for your dedication to the cause of freedom!

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A Dearth of Leadership

Dearth: “an inadequate supply; scarcity; lack”

When I grew up on a small southern Idaho farm, we didn’t have television in our home.  But I remember the time in 1962,  when, as an anxious nine year old, I huddled with my family around a cream-colored tube-type radio listening to news about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember distinctly asking my Dad if he thought we were going to have a nuclear war.

He responded gravely but confidently, “If President Kennedy sticks to his guns, we’ll be ok.”


My Dad had not voted for Kennedy and never would, as far I I know, vote for a Democrat presidential candidate.  Around our house mere mention of the initials “FDR” was like cussing.

However, at the point in time when the chips were down and the future of our nation hung in the balance, my Dad expressed confidence in the office of the President and those who were assisting him in preserving the fragile peace.  President Kennedy marshaled the “best and brightest” of people from many backgrounds and political persuasions to assist him in decisions that were of great importance to our country. Then, he acted decisively and stuck to his guns.  That is called leadership.

Please fast forward with me nearly 48 years to our current time and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill crisis.  Ironically, the geographical focal points then and now are not too far apart. The potential end game is not nuclear war or fragile peace, but the livelihood of millions, the future of the environment and our economic stability do hang in the proverbial balance.

Now, in contrast to listening to the small family radio in 1962, we are bombarded with newscasts about this event.  It was soon clear to me that the BP executives were living in denial or just hoping the fairy godmother would come down and clean the whole mess up.

And then, when President Obama declared crudely that he was going to find out whose a** to kick, I told my family that “There is certainly a dearth of leadership in this mess.”  Leadership is all about consulting the best and brightest, having the courage to exert intellectual honesty, and finding solutions, not laying blame.  I just didn’t see that happening anywhere.


A few weeks later, I was pleased to hear that I was not alone in my thinking.

On June 10th, I read an op-ed piece in the USA Today, where Mitt Romney came to precisely the same conclusion.

Has it come to this again? The president is meeting with his oil spill experts, he crudely tells us, so that he knows “whose ass to kick.” We have become accustomed to his management style — target a scapegoat, assign blame and go on the attack. To win health care legislation, he vilified insurance executives; to escape bankruptcy law for General Motors, he demonized senior lenders; to take the focus from the excesses of government, he castigated business meetings in Las Vegas; and to deflect responsibility for the deepening and lengthening downturn, he blames Wall Street and George W. Bush. But what may make good politics does not make good leadership. And when a crisis is upon us, America wants a leader, not a politician.

Mr. Romney went on to give several examples of excellent leadership – across the spectrum of political persuasion:

We saw leadership on Sept. 11, 2001. Then as now, black billows seemed to come from the center of the earth. Lives had been lost. The environmental impact was immeasurable. The looming economic impact from lost tourism was incalculable. Into the crisis walked Rudy Giuliani. While that was an incomparable human tragedy, how the mayor led New York City to recover is a useful model for the president. …

In a crisis, the leader must gather the experts — federal, state, local, public and private — not to discover who is to blame but to secure their active and continuous involvement until the crisis is resolved. There is extraordinary power inherent in an assembly of brilliant people guided by an able leader. In virtually every historic national crisis, our most effective leaders gathered the best minds they could find — consider the Founders in Philadelphia, Lincoln with his “Team of Rivals,” Roosevelt with scientists and generals seeking to end World War II, Kennedy with the “Best and Brightest” confronting the Cuban missile crisis.

There are certainly a lot of smart people available – from industry, academia, government and the general public.  There is no dearth of ideas, but there is a real dearth of leadership at the helm.

But even a gathering of experts won’t accomplish much unless a skilled leader uses their perspective to guide the recovery. So far, it has been the CEO of BP who has been managing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president surely can’t rely on BP — its track record is suspect at best: Its management of this crisis has been characterized by obfuscation and lack of preparation. And BP’s responsibilities to its shareholders conflict with the greater responsibility to the nation and to the planet.

Battling the oil crisis might not be the “change” that was high on the President’s agenda, but Murphy’s Law still reigns, bad things do happen, and we need leadership to lead us out of this big black hole.

The president must personally lead the effort to solve the crisis. He cannot delegate this quintessential responsibility of his presidency in the way he delegated the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill and the health care bill. It may be an instance of learning on the job, but it is a job only he can do.

Kennedy was a young man; many of those he gathered around him were young, but youth didn’t stand in the way of purposeful action.  In times of crises, we don’t need excuses; we need results.

The president can learn a good deal from the crisis leadership of men and women in government and in business. Giuliani is a notable example, but so too are Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Kennedy. In a time of national crisis, we look to our president to acknowledge, as Harry Truman did, that it is at his desk where the buck stops.

This is not just a political issue.  It is an issue of capability, credibility, motivation and decisive action. It is not about placing blame.  There is plenty of that to spread around when the time comes.  Genuine leaders rise above faults they and others always have, and learn, like Kennedy, to marshal the best and brightest, listen to what they have to say, act decisively, and stick to their guns.  Then, and only then, will we be ok.

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What a Way to Present the Flag!

It’s late, but I must share one more video, this one referred to me by my wife, whose Facebook status today proclaimed, “ Claudia Dixon loves the red, white, and blue and all it stands for.”

I believe this took place at an air show at Langley Air Force Base in 2008.



I wonder if Claudia will let me take the next jump?

Happy Independence Day … and good night! God bless America!

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Better Keep In Touch!

I’m not sure how much this cowboy poem has to do with Freedom, but I got a kick out of it when my good friend John Olsen sent it my way.  I don’t know who wrote poem, or how old it really is.  But it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine some old codger spinning this yarn as if it were 110% real.


Jake, the rancher, went one day to fix a distant fence.

The wind was cold and gusty and the clouds rolled gray and dense.

As he pounded the last staples in and gathered tools to go,

The temperature had fallen, wind and snow began to blow.


When he finally reached his pickup, he felt a heavy heart.

From the sound of that ignition, he knew it wouldn’t start.

So Jake did what most of us would do if we had just been there.

He humbly bowed his balding head and sent aloft a prayer


As he turned the key just one last time, he softly cursed his luck.

They found him three days later, frozen stiff in that old truck.

Now Jake had been around in life and done his share of roaming.

But when he saw Heaven, he was shocked– — it looked just like Wyoming!


Of all the saints in Heaven, his favorite was St. Peter.

(Now, this line ain’t needed but it helps with rhyme and meter)

So they set and talked a minute or two, or maybe it was three.

Nobody was keepin’ score — — in Heaven time is free.

"I’ve always heard," Jake said to Pete, "that God will answer prayer,

But one time I asked for help, well, he just plain wasn’t there."


Why does God answer prayers of some, and ignore the prayers of others?

That don’t seem exactly square — — I know all men are brothers."

"Or does he randomly reply, without good rhyme or reason?

Maybe, it’s the time of day, the weather or the season."


"Now I ain’t trying to act smart, it’s just the way I feel.

And I was wondering’, could you tell me — — what the heck’s the deal?!"

Peter listened very patiently and when Jake was done,

There were smiles of recognition, and he said, "So, you’re the one!!"


"That day your truck, it wouldn’t start, and you sent your prayer a flying,

You gave us all a real bad time, with hundreds of us trying"

"A thousand angels rushed, to check the status of your file,

But you know, Jake, we hadn’t heard from you in quite a long while."

"And though all prayers are answered and God ain’t got no quota,

He didn’t recognize your voice, and started a truck in North Dakota."



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In God We Still Trust

Thanks for my good friend John Olsen for pointing out this uplifting video from Diamond Rio, “In God We Still Trust.”  In addition watching the video directly below, you can see the video on the In God We Still Trust website, which includes full lyrics for the song.

In the adult Sunday School lesson I taught today about the Psalms, we read these phrases:

"The Lord is my arock, and my bfortress, and my deliverer; my God, my cstrength, in whom I will dtrust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.”
(Psalms 18: 2)

… and …

“In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.”
(Psalms 56: 11)

God knows us, he loves us, he wants us to be free.  We can trust that he will be our unfailing support amidst the swirling uncertainties of today’s world.  We just need to remember him and order our lives in harmony with his teachings.

As he proclaimed,

… If ye acontinue in my word, then are ye my bdisciples indeed;

And ye shall aknow the btruth, and the ctruth shall make you dfree.
(John 8: 31-32)

Thank you, Diamond Rio! We do still trust in God.  And that trust will keep us free.

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Word of the Day: Tricorn

Every day, an email message from Visual Thesaurus drops in my email box with an interesting Word of the Day.  Today’s word was tricorn, in honor of Independence Day:


“The children’s song that begins ‘My hat it has three corners . . .’ might seem to be an etymological friend of this word, but in fact the -corn part is from Latin cornu, "horn" (from which, by the way, corner is also derived). We salute the three cornered hat today for its association with the American revolutionary period whose culmination was the Declaration of Independence: signed on this day in Philadelphia in 1776.

Thanks, Visual Thesaurus, for teaching us about tricorn hats today.  You might be interested to note that you can purchase a hat like the handsome gentleman above is wearing for $165 from Jas Townsend & Son.  Enjoy!


By the way, tomorrow’s Visual Thesaurus’ word of the day, malleable, meaning “able to be shaped or bent”, just appeared in my email box.  I am grateful that our Founding Fathers and patriots who fought in the revolutionary war weren’t overly malleable. It took amazing courage and resolve to stand firm against what many thought were insurmountable odds to win our freedom from tyranny.  Thank you, noble tricorn wearing, rock solid souls!