With the face search engine PimEyes, every online photo of you is just a click away. Users are only supposed to search for their own faces, but the site does not enforce this rule. (The New York Times)
NH: Over the last couple of months, numerous news outlets have written scathing articles about PimEyes, a facial recognition search engine. So let's explore why the NYT describes the company's offerings as "a potentially dangerous superpower."
How does PimEyes work? A user uploads a photo of a face, and the website's facial recognition software scours the internet for any pictures of that person. The user is given a list of these images with links to the websites where they were found. These images don't pull from social media sites--but they pull from just about everywhere else, from old newspapers to porn sites.
PimEyes has been labeled as the ultimate stalking tool. The site claims you should only search for photos of yourself. But nothing is stopping you from uploading someone else's image.
An anonymous user told the NYT he uses the software to find explicit photos of people he knows and to identify porn stars' true identities. Employers have used it on potential hires. And amateur sleuths supposedly used it to identify rioters at the January 6th insurrection.
The website technically allows users to "opt-out" of its search engine. You can submit a photo for free, and PimEyes will not allow anyone to search for your face. But this feature is buried on its website.
Many users have confused it with the company's subscription plans. For $79.99 a month, PimEyes will draft 80 takedown notices for websites using your photo without permission. And for a mere $299.99 a month, they also offer a more advanced search engine and export results in CSV files.
Some charge that PimEyes' services amount to "legal extortion." A nightmare example is narrated in a recent CNN cover story. A successful computer engineer in her thirties uploaded her image to the company's search engine and was confronted with pornographic photos from her teen years when she was coerced into performing sex acts on camera.
Due to the trauma, she barely recalls the episode. She certainly had no idea the photos were online. Unaware of the free option, she paid for PimEyes' services. The story went viral when she came forward to the media, and PimEyes eventually refunded her payment.
Of course, other businesses offer similar facial-recognition services. The best known is Clearview AI. The company's main clients are primarily law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Other companies similarly focus on public agencies like schools and airports. PimEyes is unique for its focus on individual users.
Back in 2014, we wrote a NewsWire on the growing debate over control of digital identities. (See "The World According to Google.”) At the time, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must accept an individual's requests to delete results that match a person's name in internet searches. The controversy over PimEyes is the image version of this "right to be forgotten."
Over the last couple of years, numerous states have enacted laws to limit the use of individuals' biometric data (e.g., facial images, fingerprints, iris scans, etc.). But most of these laws only apply to the government.
For example, Washington bans government agencies from using facial recognition software without a warrant. And New York state recently banned schools from using the same software.
The most comprehensive legislation comes from Illinois. In 2008, the state enacted the Biometric Information Privacy Act. Private companies must receive consent "to collect, capture, purchase, receive, disclose, or disseminate biometric information." As a result, PimEyes does not operate in Illinois. And it has adjusted its algorithms "to block all data that can be reasonably linked with Illinois or Illinois residents." (The ACLU used the Illinois law to bring a lawsuit against Clearview AI, and the company just settled.)
There are some recent pushes for similar legislation on the federal level. A bipartisan group of congresspeople just announced a new data privacy bill called the American Data and Protection Act. Section 102 explicitly prohibits "the collection, processing, or transferring of biometric information" except "with the affirmative express consent of the individual." (There are other more technical exceptions related to security and legal obligations.) This would be a massive blow to facial recognition companies if this were to pass. Still, most analysts believe the bill has an uphill battle and probably won't be voted on in committee until the next Congress.
IMO, some kind of federal legislation targeting private companies that hawk these services to individuals would have broad public support.
Keep in mind that few individuals own the software or can rent the vast digital storage services they would need in order to make global facial image searches on their own. These companies are thus weaponizing a capability that few individuals would otherwise possess.
Placing some limits on all companies or public agencies from employing facial recognition for any purpose may also be advisable. But the public is most alarmed by the abuse that happens when anybody is empowered to search for anybody else. Public sentiment is more divided in other cases. Indeed, the public generally supports the use of facial recognition by law enforcement to catch criminals.
A 2019 Pew survey found that 87% of US adults believe people "should have the right to have potentially embarrassing photos or videos permanently deleted by the people or organizations who have that information." That's pretty powerful support.
Stripping people of the ability to control their own digital identities conflicts with our fundamental beliefs about identity, autonomy, and rehabilitation.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.