How a Facial Recognition Mismatch Can Ruin Your Life

Steve Talley is hardly the first person to be arrested for the errors of a forensic evaluation. More than half of the exonerations analyzed by the Innocence Project have involved cases where forensic experts cited flawed or exaggerated evidence, and in 2009 a landmark paper by the National Academy of Sciences stated what many had long suspected: Apart from DNA testing, no other forensic method could reliably and consistently “demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

The report launched the forensic science community into a crisis of interpretation, with many questioning whether its methods should be deemed “sciences” at all. Last year, the FBI announced that virtually all of its hair analysis testimony had been scientifically indefensible, while the Texas Forensic Science Commission recently recommended banning bite-mark evidence from court. In September, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that firmly concluded that forensic techniques relying on visual patterns fell short of scientific standards and relied on the subjective opinions of law enforcement.

But while the accuracy of other visual, pattern-matching methods like blood-splatter analysis has been subject to vigorous public debate, the fallibility of facial comparison, or facial identification, has received less attention.

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