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What you need to know about facial recognition home security cameras

As facial recognition technology becomes more prevalent in home security cameras, it's important to understand what it is and how it's used. Here, we break it all down.

Convenience or privacy? Today's technology frequently asks users to take their pick. Smart home security brings this uncomfortable choice home. After all, smart home devices need to collect and communicate data in order to offer value. But the practices and capabilities that make smart home security frictionless (like automatically syncing devices), also make them problematic.

Facial recognition takes the privacy and security concerns of smart home systems to the next level. Smart security cameras, with or without facial recognition, can be intercepted, functionality and footage maliciously redeployed by hackers. But what about cameras that build a database that matches faces to names? Biometric data makes the threat of hacking more serious, and adds another, more globalized concern -- racial bias.

Facial recognition: what it is and how it's used

New technology is frequently expensive, imperfect, and controversial. Facial recognition hits all three. But the technology has big potential in an enormous range of fields -- in airports, in crowd management, in grocery stores, where shelf-mounted cameras pick up shopper mood. Facial recognition has applications just about everywhere; including your home security system.

Facial analysis algorithms enable security cameras to learn your household's regular faces. This makes for more seamless system control (the camera can "recognize" you at the door and disarm the alarm) and increases the detail of alerts.

But the current technology is still fairly clunky. You have to introduce the camera to the faces you want it to remember, either by adding photos or letting the camera take their photo. Facial recognition cameras build a database of familiar faces (most can remember 16-32). Because faces are three-dimensional and constantly in motion, not static like a fingerprint, cameras have to learn faces by seeing them from different angles over time -- for a couple days or more. You may have already experienced this process if you set up Face ID on your new iPhone.

Analytics occur inside the camera, which is a boon for privacy. Names and faces aren't transported to a company server, meaning they aren't vulnerable to large-scale data breaches or exploitable for business purposes. It also means that getting an alert for a repeat-offense criminal is still a long way off.

Facial recognition makes the smart home smarter

A security system that remembers faces improves both ease of use and crime prevention. Early adopters can move beyond the "Hey, Alexa" style of system control. Just showing your face to the camera is enough to adjust the room's temperature to your preferred 71 degrees and turn on Spotify.

Facial recognition also adds more actionable information to system alerts. Rather than reporting an anonymous person visited your front door at 2:33 pm, a facial recognition camera lets you know it was your grandma. False alarms start with false alerts. A camera able to parse a loved one from an intruder helps cut down on spurious alerts, and helps you decide when it's worth calling the police.

Few smart cameras offer facial recognition

Facial recognition is still a rare feature in home security cameras. And not all the cameras boasting the technology actually have it. There are a handful of smart cameras on the market with true facial recognition software -- from Honeywell, Nest, Netatmo, Tend Secure, Wisenet -- but more are on the horizon. Abode, ADT, and LG all teased facial-recognition devices at CES 2020.

Notably, Ring Alarm, the security company bought by Amazon in 2016 and associated with aggressive innovation, does not yet include facial recognition in its smart cameras.

For better or worse, Amazon sees just such a future: An Amazon patent describes pairing Ring doorbells with Rekognition technology. Such an upgrade would effectively link citizen cameras to police databases.

Facial recognition has drawbacks

Ring cameras do not yet have facial recognition, but the bad press the company has weathered in the past year illustrates the technology's theoretical negatives: big-brother surveillance, loss of privacy, hacking, and racial profiling. Cameras can struggle with recognizing dark-skinned individuals. Such a weakness has real impact if camera footage is deployed to track criminals.

Privacy and bias in technology -- those are two reasons to forego facial recognition. The relative greenness of facial recognition is another. Facial recognition software takes time to develop its database and can be tricked. The less sophisticated the camera, the more likely shadows or sunglasses are to throw it off.

What to look for in facial recognition security cameras

Facial recognition, nascent and troubled as it may be, represents a new frontier in artificial intelligence. Recognizing someone by sight is a uniquely human ability.

If you're ready to add facial recognition to your home security system, shop and install with security and privacy in mind. Only purchase smart home devices that have strong protection protocols in place. At minimum, that means two-factor authentication and regular security updates. User-friendly controls to turn off video, audio, or specific functions (including facial recognition) are also important. Try to position your facial recognition device so that it records those actually on your property -- not every passing stranger. And consider posting a sign nearby to notify whoever steps on your property that they are under surveillance.