Resisting the rise of facial recognition

We’re all in the database

Another concern, especially in the United States, is that the watch lists that police use to check images against can be enormous — and can include people without their knowledge. Researchers at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University in Washington DC estimated in 2016 that around half of all Americans were in law-enforcement face-recognition networks, because many states allow police to search driver’s-licence databases.

And earlier this year, The New York Times revealed[5] that software company Clearview AI in New York City had scraped billions of images from social-media sites and compiled them into a facial-recognition database. The firm offered its service to police in and outside the United States.

“The Clearview scandal threw into relief what researchers had long thought was possible,” says Ben Sobel, who studies the ethics and governance of AI at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Technology capable of recognizing faces at scale is becoming more accessible and requiring less sophistication to run.”

Social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have told Clearview to stop scraping their sites, saying it breaches their terms of service. And several lawsuits have been filed against the firm, including under an Illinois law that allows individuals in that state to sue firms who capture their biometric information — including from the face — without their consent. In June, the European Data Protection Board issued an opinion that Clearview’s service breaches the GDPR –— but no action has yet been taken. Clearview, which stopped selling some of its services this year after media coverage, told Nature that its “image-search engine functions within the bounds of applicable laws”.

Clearview isn’t the only firm to harvest online images of faces. A company called PimEyes in Wrocław, Poland, has a website that allows anyone to find matching photos online, and the firm claims to have scraped 900 million images — although, it says, not from social-media sites. And NtechLab launched the FindFace app in 2016 to permit face-matching on the Russian social network VK. The company later withdrew the app.

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