Say Goodbye to Anonymity: A New App Highlights Uses, Controversies of Face-recognition

The hot new technology of face recognition can help nab criminals, suppress government opponents or harass people on social media.

Nadan Feldman.
Nadan Feldman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Photographs of individuals identified by the FindFace facial recognition app sit on a digital screen at the NTechLab offices in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
Photographs of individuals identified by the FindFace facial recognition app sit on a digital screen at the NTechLab offices in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, July 12, 2016.Credit: Andrey Rudakov, Bloomberg
Nadan Feldman.
Nadan Feldman

Russia is steeped in a major financial crisis, with many of its 150 million citizens having difficulty finding work or supporting their families. But the talk in many parts of the country is not the state of the economy or the deterioration of relations with the West, but rather FindFace, a groundbreaking app developed by two previously anonymous young entrepreneurs.

FindFace allows users to take a picture of an unknown individual and to have the identity of the person revealed through a search of photos on Russia’s Vkontate social media provider, the Russian counterpart of Facebook.

Since FindFace was launched in March, its creators, 26-year-old Artem Kukharenko and 29-year-old Alexander Kabakov, have touted the 600,000 downloads of the app and the more than three million searches through about 100 million Vkontakte profiles. The app is thought to have a 70% accuracy rate.

Users have been turning to the app for a range of purposes, some relatively innocent, such as asking a stranger on the street out on a date. Others, however, have used it for more nefarious purposes, such as harassment of women on social media, the outing of actors in porno films by disclosing their real names, and reporting foreign tourists who seem suspicious to police — this, against the backdrop of the atmosphere of suspicion that the Kremlin has cultivated.

The app’s success in Russia has attracted attention abroad as well. Kabakov, the extrovert of the two, who handles marketing, announced that as of this summer, the app would be available to any company around the world that wished to make use of FindFace technology.

In an interview with the website Tech Insider, he and Kukharenko said they had already received inquiries from more than 300 companies — and governments — including the U.S. and Chinese governments. They are also expected to sign a contract shortly with the City of Moscow to have the FindFace algorithm installed in 150,000 cameras installed around the Russian capital.

Although similar products are available around the world, including technology owned by Facebook, Microsoft and Google, the stiff demand for FaceFind is mostly the result of its superior technology. The product algorithm, which Kukharenko developed, won a face recognition technology award last year at the University of Washington, besting all of the competition, including Google’s MegaFace.

Few servers needed

The major advantage of FaceFind technology is its ability to run on a very small number of servers, allowing it to decipher the data more quickly than Google’s technology, which requires big data server capacity. Gushing from the success of his product, Kabakov says his startup will become the Google of face recognition, telling Tech Insider his company would like to create a global network of face recognition cameras.

That, however, entails certain problems. Is it possible that within a few years our anonymity on the streets will be a thing of the past?

The data research firm IHS says there are already 250 million security cameras installed around the world, documenting the movements of hundreds of millions of people. In addition to the large number of cameras, face recognition algorithms have also become much faster and more accurate, the data firm says, and the available database of faces is now huge. All of this has major implications for the privacy of all of us, says Tarun Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur who has been writing a book about recognition technology.

The Israeli angle

And what’s the state of face recognition technology in Israel? In 2012, Facebook acquired Israeli face recognition startup Face.com for $100 million, in one of the most talked about Israeli exits of recent years, despite the relatively modest price tag for the company.

Face.com was founded in 2007 by its CEO, Gil Hirsch, along with several investors, and it developed technology to automatically tag faces on social media such as Facebook and Twitter and on search engines. The system is based on unique technology and software and app developers can pay Face.com a license fee for use of the technology for broader commercial purposes or to provide a service to clients of its own.

Facebook courted the Israeli startup for many months in an effort to improve its users’ experience in sharing photos. Within a month of its acquisition, Face.com was fully integrated into Facebook’s operations. Its staff was transferred to Facebook’s California headquarters and the Israeli firm was shut down.

Face.com’s success and the speedy development of technology for functions such as face recognition and analysis of behavioral patterns spurred other Israeli companies, including BioCatch, to work in the field.

BioCatch specializes in biometric technology for the purposes of identification and information security. In 2013, the company unveiled new technology designed to replace the endless need for passwords for websites and apps, which are also subject to the risk of hacking. It’s based on the users’ own behavior patterns and has been shown to be 99% accurate on a range of devices, from the keyboard and mouse to the touchscreens on smartphones and tablets.

In 2011, BioCatch signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Early Warning, the largest financial data security firm in the United States, providing BioCatch’s services to Early Warning’s own customers, including major financial firms such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

Another success

Another success is AnyVision, an Israeli company specializing in face recognition on security camera footage. The company is targeting government institutions and businesses as clients.

AnyVision, which was founded by UCLA economist Shlomo Benartzi and company CEO Eylon Etshtein, has labs in Israel and the United States and hires mostly high-level academics. In February, it was announced that AnyVision would be purchased for $6 million by the Australian shell company Top End Minerals, which is owned by Israeli-Australian billionaire Joseph Gottlieb.

Tarun Wadhwa, the entrepreneur writing the book about face recognition, is one of many critics who has warned about the implications of the technology. But thanks to billions of dollars that government and business have invested in the field over the past decade, the impact of the technology is already being felt.

In the corporate sector, for example, Microsoft has developed a camera that can distinguish between identical twins and a billboard that can survey who is looking at it, in order to switch tailored advertising for different observers. Apple acquired a startup that developed algorithms that decipher emotions by scanning facial features. Google offers built-in Android smartphone face recognition software that automatically sorts the pictures on the users’ phone in its photo gallery. In Britain, there are stores using technology that can rate customers based on whether they are loyal clients or customers likely not to buy anything.

When it comes to governments, including intelligence agencies, from the United States to Ireland and Pakistan, the technology is put to very different uses, such as the war on crime, making transportation more efficient and the tracking of large numbers of people through big data bases.

At American national parks, face recognition systems have located lost hikers. In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, 1,950 cameras have been installed in an effort to curb crime. In Ireland, the police are expected to make use of face recognition technology as part of a $225 million, five-year investment in systems to catch criminals. The system has attained 74% accuracy in a pilot program, the police reported.

Everyone wants the police to nab crooks more efficiently and deter car thieves and armed robbers, but a problem arises in the not-insignificant number of cases of false identification. And of all law enforcement agencies, it is actually the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is seemingly the most advanced of them all and with the largest amount of resources at its disposal, that has demonstrated the risks inherent in the technology and the disregard for the law.

FBI face database

A report last month by the U.S. General Accounting Office, a Congressional oversight agency, disclosed that the FBI has a database of more than 400 million photos of faces taken from driver’s licenses and passport and visa application pictures. The database was set up to cross-reference the photos with those of criminal suspects, but the accuracy of the system has been questioned.

The higher-ups at the FBi apparently knew that the algorithm they were using had problems because they failed to properly report to the U.S. Administration regarding the impact of the program on individual privacy. The lack of accuracy, which back in 2014 was thought to have fallen below the precision of Facebook’s technology, is a clear violation of American law, which greatly limits the collection of personal data and its use by government agencies.

So Kukharenko and Kabakov, the Russian face recognition entrepreneurs, should bear the pitfalls in mind when they share their algorithm with government authorities in Russia. And in Russia, even without advanced face recognition technology, the long arm of the Kremlin is already managing to get its hands on innocent people suspected of opposition to the government.

Comments