Face Recognition for the Masses

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A secretive start-up matches faces online as a free service.

What’s new: Face recognition tech tends to be marketed to government agencies, but PimEyes offers a web app that lets anyone scan the internet for photos of themself — or anyone they have a picture of. The company says it aims to help people control their online presence and fight identity theft, but privacy advocates are concerned that the tool could be used to monitor or harass people, The Washington Post reported. You can try it here.

How it works: PimEyes has extracted geometric data from over 900 million faces it has found online. It claims not to crawl social media sites, but images from Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have shown up in its results.

  • The company compares the geometry of faces in pictures uploaded by users to those in its database and returns any matches.
  • Anyone can search for free. Paying subscribers can see the web address of any images found and receive alerts when the system finds new matches. The company claims its accuracy is around 90 percent.
  • The service doesn't verify user identities, leaving it ripe for abuse. Cyberstalkers on 4Chan have used it to stalk women photographed in public, and activists on Twitter have used it to try to identify people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on February 6.
  • PimEyes, which is registered in the Seychelles, has declined interviews with several news outlets. It does not identify any of its personnel, and it answers questions via email through an anonymous spokesperson.

Behind the news: Free online face matching is part of a broader mainstreaming of face recognition and tools to counter it.

  • Google’s FaceNet, released in 2015, has become the basis of many face recognition tools.
  • The Russian app FindFace, which is used by government officials to track political dissidents, earned notoriety in 2016 when people used it to identify women who had appeared anonymously in pornography.
  • Exposing.AI uses face recognition to warn users when their Flickr images are used to train an AI model.

Why it matters: The widespread ability to find matches for any face online erodes personal privacy. It also adds fuel to efforts to regulate face recognition, which could result in restrictions that block productive uses of the technology.

We’re thinking: We’re all poorer when merely posting a photo on a social network puts privacy at risk. The fact that such a service is possible doesn’t make it a worthy use of an engineer’s time and expertise.

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