Creepy Russian FindFace Could Spell Doom For Anonymity

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

May 19, 2016

An app developed in Russia could make any notion of privacy in public obsolete in a worryingly short space of time. Launched just two months ago, FindFace can scan “Russian Facebook” social media platform VK (was VKontakte) to match photographs with users’ true identities. This can be done in seconds, and with 70 percent reliability.

With some 500,000 users and nearly 3 million searches since its launch, FindFace is set to revolutionise law enforcement and retail marketing. As founder Alexander Kabakov told the Guardian,

“Three million searches in a database of nearly 1bn photographs: that’s hundreds of trillions of comparisons, and all on four normal servers. With this algorithm, you can search through a billion photographs in less than a second from a normal computer.

It hardly takes a privacy nut to see how dangerous such a system can be, and it has already been abused in a very nasty way,

Users of the Russian imageboard ‘Dvach’ (2chan) launched a campaign to deanonymize actresses who appear in pornography. After identifying these women with FindFace, Dvach users shared archived copies of their Vkontakte pages, and spammed the women’s families and friends with messages informing them about the discovery. The effort also targeted women registered on the website ‘Intimcity’ which markets prostitution services.

Rather than horrifying its founders, they appear to see this ability to stalk and harass women online, that they have photographed on the street without their permission, as a “feature”,

If you see someone you like, you can photograph them, find their identity, and then send them a friend request.

If any reader has any doubt that this ”feature” is aimed specifically at men seeking to harass women, I refer you to the home page screenshot shown at the top of this article.

As Egor Tsvetkov, an artist who attempted to highlight the dangers of FindFace (an art project itself of dubious moral worth, as he himself did not ask permission from his subjects for their photos to be taken) noted,

In theory, this service could be used by a serial killer or a collector trying to hunt down a debtor.”

In addition to matching a photo to an individual, FindFace will match it to ten other similar looking individuals,

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.

Kabakov seems to somehow think this is not “creepy”!

Facebook users can relax a little, as the way in which Facebook stores photos (even public ones) makes them far more difficult to access than on VK. However…

FindFace is just the beginning

FindFace is just a showcase for the algorithm that powers it. This algorithm has a wide variety of applications that, should it become popular, could effectively spell the death of privacy in public spaces.

Kabakov and fellow founder Artem Kukharenko (the “geeky” genius behind the algorithm,) foresee two major areas in which the technology is likely to find quick adoption: retail, and law enforcement,

Kabakov imagines a world where cameras fix you looking at, say, a stereo in a shop, the retailer finds your identity, and then targets you with marketing for stereos in the subsequent days.”

The advantages for law enforcement are also clear. Russian police have already used the system to dramatic effect in solving historical cases, and a deal is almost completed with the Moscow city government to connect its network 150,000 CCTV cameras to a database that includes court records, wanted lists, and even social networks such as VK .

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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