Russia Provides Glimpse Of A Future Where Powerful Facial Recognition Technology Has Abolished Public Anonymity

from the are-we-really-ready-for-that? dept

As hardware and software advance, so facial recognition becomes more accurate and more attractive as a potential solution to various problems. Techdirt first wrote about this area back in 2012, when Facebook had just started experimenting with facial recognition (now we're at the inevitable lawsuit stage). Since then, we've reported on an increasing number of organizations exploring the use of facial recognition, including the FBI, the NSA, Boston police and even the church. But all of those pale in comparison to what is happening in Russia, reported here by the Guardian:

FindFace, launched two months ago and currently taking Russia by storm, allows users to photograph people in a crowd and work out their identities, with 70% reliability.

It works by comparing photographs to profile pictures on Vkontakte, a social network popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, with more than 200 million accounts. In future, the designers imagine a world where people walking past you on the street could find your social network profile by sneaking a photograph of you, and shops, advertisers and the police could pick your face out of crowds and track you down via social networks.
One of FindFace's founders, Alexander Kabakov, points out the service could have a big impact on dating:
"If you see someone you like, you can photograph them, find their identity, and then send them a friend request." The interaction doesn't always have to involve the rather creepy opening gambit of clandestine street photography, he added: "It also looks for similar people. So you could just upload a photo of a movie star you like, or your ex, and then find 10 girls who look similar to her and send them messages."
Definitely not creepy at all.

Of course, a 70% hit rate isn't that good: perhaps FindFace isn't really such a threat to public anonymity. The trouble is, the Guardian article reports that the company has performed three million searches on its database of around a billion photographs using just four common-or-garden servers. It's easy to imagine what might be achieved with some serious hardware upgrades, along with tweaks to the software, or with access to even bigger, more complete databases. For example government ones: according to the Guardian, FindFace's founders think the big money will come from selling their system to "law enforcement and retail." Although they've not yet been contacted by Russia's FSB security agency, they say they'd be happy to listen to offers from them. Perhaps comforted by the thought of all that future business coming his way, Kabakov is philosophical about the social implications of his company's technology:

"In today’s world we are surrounded by gadgets. Our phones, televisions, fridges, everything around us is sending real-time information about us. Already we have full data on people's movements, their interests and so on. A person should understand that in the modern world he is under the spotlight of technology. You just have to live with that."
That may well be true. But the question is, are we ready to do so?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2016 @ 12:27pm

    "Although they've not yet been contacted by Russia's FSB security agency, they say they'd be happy to listen to offers from them."


    It would appear that Russia's government agencies might be many years behind the United States, where the FBI, NSA, CIA and other agencies have reportedly developed their own facial-recognition databases that already harvest and catalog everything posted on social networking sites like Facebook.

    It's odd that something that's already been going on for many years behind closed doors only becomes "creepy" when people can see it in action with their own eyes.

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