Reports  |    |  December 19, 2019

Face Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) Part 3: Demographic Effects

Report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 82 pages.

Executive Summary:


This is the third in a series of reports on ongoing face recognition vendor tests (FRVT) executed by NIST. The first two reports cover, respectively, the performance of one-to-one face recognition algorithms used for verification of asserted identities, and performance of one-to-many face recognition algorithms used for identification of individuals in photo data bases. This document extends those evaluations to document accuracy variations across demographic groups.


The recent expansion in the availability, capability, and use of face recognition has been accompanied by assertions that demographic dependencies could lead to accuracy variations and potential bias. A report from Georgetown University work noted that prior studies, articulated sources of bias, described the potential impacts particularly in a policing context, and discussed policy and regulatory implications. Additionally, this work is motivated by studies of demographic effects in more recent face recognition and gender estimation algorithms.

Aims and Scope

NIST has conducted tests to quantify demographic differences in contemporary face recognition algorithms. This report provides details about the recognition process, notes where demographic effects could occur, details specific performance metrics and analyses, gives empirical results, and recommends research into the mitigation of performance deficiencies. NIST intends this report to inform discussion and decisions about the accuracy, utility, and limitations of face recognition technologies. Its intended audience includes policy makers, face recognition algorithm developers, systems integrators, and managers of face recognition systems concerned with mitigation of risks implied by demographic differentials.

What We Did

The NIST Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) quantified the accuracy of face recognition algorithms for demographic groups defined by sex, age, and race or country of birth. We used both one-to-one verification algorithms and one-to-many identification search algorithms. These were submitted to the FRVT by corporate research and development laboratories and a few universities. As prototypes, these algorithms were not necessarily available as mature integrable products. Their performance is detailed in FRVT reports. We used these algorithms with four large datasets of photographs collected in U.S. governmental applications that are currently in operation: .

  • Domestic mugshots collected in the United States.
  • Application photographs from a global population of applicants for immigration benefits.
  • Visa photographs submitted in support of visa applicants.
  • Border crossing photographs of travelers entering the United States.

All four datasets were collected for authorized travel, immigration or law enforcement processes. The first three sets have good compliance with image capture standards. The last set does not, given constraints on capture duration and environment. Together these datasets allowed us to process a total of 18.27 million images of 8.49 million people through 189 mostly commercial algorithms from 99 developers.

The datasets were accompanied by sex and age metadata for the photographed individuals. The mugshots have metadata for race, but the other sets only have country-of-birth information. We restrict the analysis to 24 countries in 7 distinct global regions that have seen lower levels of long-distance immigration. While country-of-birth information may be a reasonable proxy for race in these countries, it stands as a meaningful factor in its own right particularly for travel-related applications of face recognition.

The tests aimed to determine whether, and to what degree, face recognition algorithms differed when they processed photographs of individuals from various demographics. We assessed accuracy by demographic group and report on false negative and false positive effects. False negatives are the failure to associate one person in two images; they occur when the similarity between two photos is low, reflecting either some change in the person’s appearance or in the image properties. False positives are the erroneous association of samples of two persons; they occur when the digitized faces of two people are similar.

In background material that follows we give examples of how algorithms are used, and we elaborate on the consequences of errors noting that the impacts of demographic differentials can be advantageous or disadvantageous depending on the application.

What We Found

The accuracy of algorithms used in this report has been documented in recent FRVT evaluation reports. These show a wide range in accuracy across developers, with the most accurate algorithms producing many fewer errors. These algorithms can therefore be expected to have smaller demographic differentials. Contemporary face recognition algorithms exhibit demographic differentials of various magnitudes. Our main result is that false positive differentials are much larger than those related to false negatives and exist broadly, across many, but not all, algorithms tested. Across demographics, false positives rates often vary by factors of 10 to beyond 100 times. False negatives tend to be more algorithm-specific, and vary often by factors below 3.

  • False positives: Using the higher quality Application photos, false positive rates are highest in West and East African and East Asian people, and lowest in Eastern European individuals. This effect is generally large, with a factor of 100 more false positives between countries. However, with a number of algorithms developed in China this effect is reversed, with low false positive rates on East Asian faces. With domestic law enforcement images, the highest false positives are in American Indians, with elevated rates in African American and Asian populations; the relative ordering depends on sex and varies with algorithm. We found false positives to be higher in women than men, and this is consistent across algorithms and datasets. This effect is smaller than that due to race. We found elevated false positives in the elderly and in children; the effects were larger in the oldest and youngest, and smallest in middle-aged adults.
  • False negatives: With domestic mugshots, false negatives are higher in Asian and American Indian individuals, with error rates above those in white and African American faces (which yield the lowest false negative rates). However, with lower-quality border crossing images, false negatives are generally higher in people born in Africa and the Caribbean, the effect being stronger in older individuals. These differing results relate to image quality: The mugshots were collected with a photographic setup specifically standardized to produce high-quality images across races; the border crossing images deviate from face image quality standards. In cooperative access control applications, false negatives can be remedied by users making second attempts.

The presence of an enrollment database affords one-to-many identification algorithms a resource for mitigation of demographic effects that purely one-to-one verification systems do not have. Nevertheless, demographic differentials present in one-to-one verification algorithms are usually, but not always, present in one-to-many search algorithms. One important exception is that some developers supplied highly accurate identification algorithms for which false positive differentials are undetectable. More detailed results are introduced in the Technical Summary.

Implications of These Tests

Operational implementations usually employ a single face recognition algorithm. Given algorithm-specific variation, it is incumbent upon the system owner to know their algorithm. While publicly available test data from NIST and elsewhere can inform owners, it will usually be informative to specifically measure accuracy of the operational algorithm on the operational image data, perhaps employing a biometrics testing laboratory to assist.

Since different algorithms perform better or worse in processing images of individuals in various demographics, policy makers, face recognition system developers, and end users should be aware of these differences and use them to make decisions and to improve future performance. We supplement this report with more than 1200 pages of charts contained in seventeen annexes that include exhaustive reporting of results for each algorithm. These are intended to show the breadth of the effects, and to inform the algorithm developers.

There are a variety of techniques that might mitigate performance limitations of face recognition systems performance issues overall and specifically those that relate to demographics. This report includes recommendations for research in developing and evaluating the value, costs, and benefits of potential mitigation techniques – see sections 8 and 9 .

Reporting of demographic effects often has been incomplete in academic papers and in media coverage. In particular, accuracy is discussed without stating the quantity of interest be it false negatives, false positives or failure to enroll. As most systems are configured with a fixed threshold, it is necessary to report both false negative and false positive rates for each demographic group at that threshold. This is rarely done – most reports are concerned only with false negatives. We make suggestions for augmenting reporting with respect to demographic difference and effects. [ . . . ]