End of privacy: New technology means one photo is all it takes to identify you online

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The world of communication

THE concept of privacy has taken a real battering in the digital age and the march towards total control of your previously personal details has taken an ominous step forward with the release of a new facial recognition app in Russia.

Having gone live in February, the mobile application aptly named FindFace has attracted more than half a million users in just two months eager to use the advanced software to identify people in a large crowd, take their photograph, and then identify them on social media.

The key to the application’s mooted 70 per cent success rate in identifying strangers is its compatibility with one of Russia’s largest online social networks, Vkontakte. Boasting more than 200 million accounts throughout Russia and the former Soviet sphere, the site’s colossal reservoir of profile pictures and personal photos can be easily accessed by the technology powering FindFace.

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Now anyone walking down a Moscow street or riding a bus in St Petersburg can slyly take a photo of a stranger, upload it to their phone and, if the person has a Vkontakte account, instantly identify them.

The development has tremendous implications for the nature of privacy and public anonymity, and is likely to be commandeered by security agencies and corporations in the near future.

FindFace are already in advanced discussions with the Moscow authorities who see their 150,000 CCTV cameras as a perfect weapon to be channelled by the technology, in a bid to capture criminals and fugitives.

For those who don’t have any immediate plans to commit the heist of the century, the developers behind FindFace have identified the retail industry as the most profitable avenue for their newly minted know-how.

Cameras in shopping centres and stores could capture people browsing particular items, identify them using the app, and then, flush with their interests and contact details, direct a subtle advertising towards unwitting shoppers as they browse online weeks and months later.

With the advent of Tinder taking the dating world by storm, the new technology has the potential to even further revolutionise how people meet one another.

The beauty you saw standing at the other side of the platform, or the dashing stranger who brushed your arm, no longer need be the object of a minute-long daydream, instead you can refine the art of stalking to find out exactly who they are.

It’s an alarming vision but unfortunately no longer one confined to the imagination of science fiction writers. Already FindFace users have ignited controversy in Russia by naming and shaming Russian porn actresses using the software.

One young artist from St Petersburg has drawn attention to the sheer invasiveness of the technology by photographing subjects on the underground and then matching them online. Revealing the accuracy of his results, Egor Tsvetkov noted that while his intentions were benign, he could well have been a serial killer or debt collector.

Other proposed uses for the technology include identifying rioters or political protestors at large scale events, solving crime mysteries, and strengthening security operations at casinos and hotels.

While there will doubtlessly be benefits to the technology, the scope for misuse stretches bout as far as the human imagination, which has shown little appetite for restraint in the past.

At present the technology cannot penetrate Facebook’s algorithms but it would be baselessly naive to assume that the software won’t evolve dramatically now that it is out in the open. At this point the possibilities are truly endless as technology takes on a life of its own.

One of the founders of FindFace, the 29-year-old philosophy graduate Alexander Kabako, believes that the era of privacy most of us grew up in is now well and truly over.

 “In today’s world we are surrounded by gadgets. Our phones, televisions, fridges, and everything around us, is sending real-time information about us. Already we have full data on people’s movements, their interests and so on. A person should understand that in the modern world he is under the spotlight of technology. You just have to live with that.”

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