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Facial Recognition Software Advances Trigger Worries

Posted by hkarner - 11. Oktober 2016

Date: 11-10-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Russian startup readies a package that correctly matches 73% of people to large photo database

A Moscow startup is preparing to sell a facial recognition package that correctly identified 73% people in a one million photo database.

MOSCOW—When Russian clubgoers flocked to the country’s biggest electronic music festival this summer, they didn’t have to bring a camera or even their phones.

Instead, festival organizers used facial-identification technology to pick out revelers and send them their pictures directly to their phone. All they needed to do was opt in, by sending a selfie.

The technology is the product of NTechLab, a Moscow-based firm whose algorithm to identify facial features is getting attention in the broader information technology world. NTechLab co-founders Artem Kukharenko and Alexander Kabakov believe the possible uses of their technology are almost endless, and mostly positive: from allowing police to search for criminals in real time, to helping amusement parks identify and sell photos to their guests.

But the technology comes with a darker side. One of the company’s products touched off a privacy scandal in Russia, and the founders say they are in negotiations to sell its products to state-affiliated security firms from China and Turkey, among other countries, many of whom have spotty records of protecting civil liberties.

The 26-year-old Mr. Kukharenko and 29-year-old Mr. Kabakov largely brushed off any fears that their technology could end up in the wrong hands. Mr. Kabakov said that simply owning a smartphone means you can’t opt out of surveillance.

“There is no private life,” he said. “Your government can control you now…. You take your iPhone or Android phone and it has information about your behavior, your movements, about what you buy, about who you are talking to.”

For now, the company of 20 employees is self financed. But its founders hope to raise funds this year, and expect the company to be valued at roughly $30 million. The company, which hasn’t reported any revenue yet, is marketing its product to some 400 companies, and hopes to complete some sales later this year.

Mr. Kukharenko had dabbled in facial recognition software since his days at Moscow State University, but said it wasn’t until he decided to spend two months designing an app for identifying dog breeds that he realized the extent of what the technology might be capable of.

But the big breakthrough for the two duo was the 2015 MegaFace Challenge, a facial recognition competition held at the University of Washington. NTechLab beat a team from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, identifying celebrities from a batch of 1 million photographs with 73.3% accuracy.

Mr. Kukharenko developed the algorithm by effectively training a computer network, using some 20 million labeled photographs and repeatedly asking the network to identify each one. Eventually, the system was able to apply that learned knowledge of facial features to brand-new images.

‘There is always a conflict between progress and some scared people.’
—Alexander Kabakov, NTechLab co-founder

Following their success at MegaFace Challenge, the duo sought to get the word out to the broader public. They joined with another team to launch FindFace, an online portal that allows users to submit photographs and search a database of pictures from VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, which according to the company reached 70 million daily unique users in 2015.

Get the word out it did: the platform made headlines in Russia when a group on VKontakte used FindFace to identify and harass women who had allegedly acted in pornographic films online, going so far as sending messages and photographs to friends and relatives of the women.

According to NTechLab, the group was shut down by VKontakte and the user group was banned from FindFace, which has nearly a million registered users. But ethical concerns have continued to plague facial recognition technology, which has become ensnared in lawsuits in the U.S.

In May, a U.S. federal judge cleared the way for a possible class-action privacy lawsuit against Facebook for technology that is meant to help users mark friends in photographs as they upload them to the website by automatically recognizing faces in the pictures

The lawsuit alleged violation of a 2008 Illinois law, which prohibits companies from collecting biometric data from people—including scans of “hand or face geometry”—without their consent.

Various features of Facebook and Google, including facial recognition, have faced legal hurdles over privacy concerns in Europe.

NTechLab expects it could be more difficult to market their product in Europe and the U.S. In Russia, Moscow’s city government is planning to install NTechLab’s technology on security cameras around the city, according to media reports. The company’s co-founders declined to confirm.

Asked if the company had a red line for the kinds of clients they would work with, Mr. Kabakov answered: “We don’t have this line, because we don’t receive requests from strange people.”

Mr. Kabakov says the technology should be welcomed, rather than condemned: He compared the resistance to facial-recognition technology to the debate brought on by Uber Technologies Inc.’s ride-hailing app that has courted controversy in some countries.

“There is always a conflict between progress and some scared people,” he said. “But in any way, progress wins.”

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