Black Friday

Facebook’s facial recognition software knows you from the back

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

June 30, 2015

For most people, Facebook is a part of life that is somehow unavoidable. These days even if you are simply dating, having a Facebook account is considered a social norm, and not having one can instantly make you less appealing; a eunuch who should not be approached! Or perhaps you need a Facebook profile because a future employer may want to give you a background check, and not having a Facebook account could make the difference between getting or not getting a job? After all, according to a 2013 survey by the London-based Institute for Employment Studies, almost half of all companies admitted to using social media profiles when making hiring decisions.

In both cases, the lack of a Facebook account is considered for some reason to be suspicious. It is a lack that is considered to be a warning about your character – a character that is considered flawed  because of its avoidance of something that is such a part of the ‘now’.

For those people that do choose to abstain, however, time and time again there is news in the media about the ways in which Facebook chooses to garner personal information from its users that easily vindicates their decision not to join – passive listening, facial recognition, profiling for third party advertiser, abuse of ‘Likes’, and more. These are all good reasons not to be a part of the cultural phenomenon that is Facebook.

Of course, try telling that to the girl you just met in the bar, after she casually asks you to add her on Facebook. You will likely be met with an incredulous and open-mouthed stare of disbelief as if you are a conspiracy theory obsessed nutcase! Such is the stigma associated with deciding to opt out of a website that steals your personal information from you – with your express permission.

Now, however, those who have not got a Facebook account have cause to celebrate their decision again. This time it is due to revelations that Facebook’s facial recognition software is so advanced that not only is it able to pick you out from a line-up with relative ease, but (thanks to an experimental new algorithm devised by its developers) it can even recognize you in a photograph when your face is obscured from view.

Talking about this latest breakthrough, Yann LeCun, head of artificial intelligence at Facebook, explains that he wanted to see if Facebook’s facial recognition software could be adapted to recognize people when their faces were obscured from view – something which humans are very good at,

‘There are a lot of cues we use. People have characteristic aspects, even if you look at them from the back, for example, you can recognize Mark Zuckerberg very easily because he always wears a gray T-shirt.’

In order to carry out the research and create the new algorithm, the team collected 40,000 photos from Flickr – some in which people faces were visible, others where their face was obscured. It then ran them through a ‘sophisticated neural network’. The results of the process, which were presented earlier this month at the  Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference in Boston, Massachusetts, reveal that the final algorithm is able to recognize individual’s identities with 83 percent accuracy.

Ralph Gross from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says that the impressive algorithm might be of concern to the privacy conscious among us, commenting that  ‘if, even when you hide your face, you can be successfully linked to your identify, that will certainly concern people,’ adding that ‘now is a time when it’s important to discuss these questions.’

True, and considering that recent talks between privacy advocates and industry groups fell apart due to a complete lack of agreement on the key issue of whether people needed to be asked for permission to be facially scanned, it would appear that this is something we need to discuss loudly and forcefully, lest we be led calmly and quietly into a future where governments and corporations alike can scan us for identity as we go about our daily routines. Troubling.

According to LeCun, however, the new algorithm can also be seen in a very different light. He explains that the software could be used by the privacy-conscious to alert them to whenever a photo of themselves (no matter how obscured) is uploaded to the internet, enabling them to better keep track of their digital footprint.

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