Your Kids' Photos Power Surveillance Technology

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Kids lining up against the wall with smartphones

The New York Times has a nice feature out today about how a mother found photos of her kids in a machine learning database.

None of them could have foreseen that 14 years later, those images would reside in an unprecedentedly huge facial-recognition database called MegaFace. Containing the likenesses of nearly 700,000 individuals, it has been downloaded by dozens of companies to train a new generation of face-identification algorithms, used to track protesters, surveil terrorists, spot problem gamblers and spy on the public at large. The average age of the people in the database, its creators have said, is 16.

I can’t imagine the gross feeling you get when you see your kids in a database like this.

Your Facial Data is Worth a $5 Gift Card to Google

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Google employees are stopping people in public and offering them a US$5 gift card in exchange for their facial data. The company is thought to be working on a Face ID authentication system for the Pixel 4.

“I assume they’ll use the data to train a neural network to be able to recognize what a face is,” he replied. “Then you train your own phone on what your specific face looks like. And that’s what gets used to unlock your phone, Face ID-style, but more accurately.”

Add three zeroes to that Google, and then I’ll discuss it.

Microsoft Does Something Unexpected About Privacy

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Facial recognition

According to engadget, “Microsoft discreetly wiped its massive facial recognition database.”

Microsoft has been vocal about its desire to properly regulate facial recognition technology. The company’s president, Brad Smith, appealed directly to Congress last year to take steps to manage the tech, which he says has “broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse.” Such are the company’s concerns that it even blocked the sales of the tech to California police forces. Now, Microsoft is continuing its crusade by quietly deleting its MS Celeb database, which contains more than 10 million images of some 100,000 people.

These days, it seems everything in tech privacy matters gets continuously worse. Deleting big data sets is hard to do. Good work, Microsoft.

IBM Sells Technology to a Dictatorship...Again

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IBM is no stranger to selling stuff to dictators. First it was the Nazis, now it’s the United Arab Emirates.

But even as [facial recognition] technology comes under more scrutiny in the United States, tech giants such as IBM, and China’s Hikvision and Huawei, are marketing biometric surveillance systems in the UAE, where citizens have fewer options to push back. The UAE has used cellphone hacking software to spy on hundreds of dissidents, journalists, and suspected criminals, and has invested heavily in surveillance technology, according to human rights groups and international media reports.

 

Colorado Students Secretly Photographed for Military Research

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From 2012 to 2013, students at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs campus were secretly photographed as part of a research project. The U.S. Navy wanted to improve its facial recognition algorithms.

To conduct the study, [professor] Boult set up a long-range surveillance camera in an office window about 150 meters away from the West Lawn of the Colorado Springs campus, a public area where passers-by would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The camera surreptitiously photographed people walking in the area of the West Lawn on certain days during the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013.

Facebook Facial Recognition Opt-Out Not Universal

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Consumer Reports found that Facebook facial recognition doesn’t seem to be a universal setting, despite Facebook promising otherwise.

Consumer Reports examined the accounts of 31 Facebook users across the U.S. The participants let us record video as they navigated their Facebook settings under our direction. We found the Face Recognition setting missing from eight of the accounts we documented, or just over 25 percent.

I could be a smart a** and recommend deleting your Facebook account as a way to opt out, but that wouldn’t help the people still on Facebook.

IBM Secretly Used Flickr Photos for Facial Recognition

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IBM secretly used millions of Flickr photos to test its facial recognition system. IBM claimed it was to help reduce bias in facial recognition.

Despite IBM’s assurances that Flickr users can opt out of the database, NBC News discovered that it’s almost impossible to get photos removed. IBM requires photographers to email links to photos they want removed, but the company has not publicly shared the list of Flickr users and photos included in the dataset, so there is no easy way of finding out whose photos are included.

NBC News got a copy of the data set, and created a tool to help you find out if IBM used your photos without your permission.

The Facebook 10 Year Challenge Might not Just be a Harmless Meme

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iphone facial recognition

If you have been on Facebook or Instagram recently, you will have noticed the “10 Year Challenge”. Users post a profile picture of themselves from 10 years ago and another from now. It is meant to be a harmless meme that laughs at ourselves and late 2000s fashion. But could there be something more sinister to it? Katie O’Neil wondered in Wired if the “10 Year Challenge” is actually helping Facebook develop a facial recognition algorithm.

Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years. Sure, you could mine Facebook for profile pictures and look at posting dates or EXIF data. But that whole set of profile pictures could end up generating a lot of useless noise…In other words, it would help if you had a clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos.