Clinical researchers regularly share data with other scientists. Typically, a great deal of effort is expended to make sure that individuals cannot be identified from the data that are generated from them. When sharing imaging information, such as MRI and CT scans, researchers remove names, patient numbers, and other metadata that can potentially be used to identify an individual. Turns out, this may not be enough, particularly when the imaging data contains scans of people’s faces.
Researchers at Mayo Clinic showed that commercial facial recognition software can, indeed, identify individuals from brain MRI scans. Such scans typically include the face, as imaging of the facial anatomy occurs naturally as part of a brain scan. Although faces on MRI scans may look distorted, and even a bit devious, to the naked eye, they still retain enough information for a computer to correlate scans with photographs of the same individuals.
The Mayo team had 84 volunteers, who already had MRI scans performed of their brain, take mug shots for the sake of science. The MRI scans were then run through a facial reconstruction algorithm and the photos were then matched to these reconstructions using commercial facial recognition software.
The software was able to identify 70 out of the 84 volunteers right away (83% success rate) and in another 10 people it chose correctly in its top five best matches (95% success rate).
These findings are certainly troubling, especially because facial recognition software packages are already so advanced. Clinical researchers will certainly have to take more caution when sharing information, as the scope of what is possible is often beyond their intuition.
Image: This figure shows photos of four participants (top two rows) and corresponding reconstructions of their faces (bottom row) created from their research MRI scans. Courtesy of New England Journal of Medicine
Letter in New England Journal of Medicine: Identification of Anonymous MRI Research Participants with Face-Recognition Software
Via: Mayo Clinic