Israeli Startup Claims to Spot Terrorists With Facial Recognition

Faception declares 80 percent accuracy in identifying character traits based on photos of faces and says it has already signed up a homeland security agency.

An airport security check at Ben-Gurion International Airport (illustrative).
Dan Keinan

A Tel Aviv startup called Faception has developed technology that purportedly can identify character traits, including spotting who might be a terrorist, by analyzing a person's face.

The startup, founded in 2014, and which presented its technology at a high-tech accelerator conference in Mountain View, California, last week sponsored by the venture capital fund 500 Startups, claims 80 percent accuracy in identifying character traits based on analysis of photographs of faces. It has already signed up a homeland agency to help spot terrorists, according to company CEO Shai Gilboa.

The technology is geared to identify a range of specific traits, beyond spotting terrorists, including, for example, identifying extroverts, people with high IQs and even professional poker players. In a demonstration of the technology's effectiveness, Gilboa said Faception scanned 50 participants at a recent poker competition and picked out four of them as top players. Two of the four finished in the top three of the tournament.

But in a report on Faception, the Washington Post said experts warn that there are ethical issues and "profound limits to the effectiveness of technology such as this." Speaking to the Post, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, Pedro Domingos, asked rhetorically: “Can I predict that you’re an ax murderer by looking at your face and therefore should I arrest you?” Gilboa is Faception's chief ethics officer, the Post stated, adding that he has vowed never to make technology that predicts negative traits available to the general public.

"The danger lies in the computer system’s imperfections. Because of that, Gilboa envisions governments considering his findings along with other sources to better identify terrorists. Even so, the use of the data is troubling to some," the Post stated.

“The evidence that there is accuracy in these judgments is extremely weak,” Alexander Todorov, a Princeton psychology professor whose research includes facial perception, told the Post. “Just when we thought that physiognomy ended 100 years ago. Oh, well.”