Controversial Facial Recognition Site Finds Your Photos Across the Internet – Even Ones You Never Knew Existed

A new facial recognition website called PimEyes is causing alarm by demonstrating the power and reach of AI technologies to identify individuals in photos across the internet. With just one photo, the site claims to be able to locate any other pictures of that person that exist online – even ones in the background of group shots or at events that the individual never knew were taken.

PimEyes was originally developed in 2017 by two Polish computer programmers, Łukasz Kowalczyk and Denis Tatina. The site utilizes deep learning algorithms to analyze and match facial features. Users can upload a photo, and PimEyes will scour websites and databases to find any other instances of that face online.

While positioned by the company as a tool to help people find unauthorized uses of their likeness online, privacy experts are concerned about the potential for misuse. Images of minors, deceased individuals, and people who never consented to having their photo taken are all discoverable. And with facial data becoming an increasingly valuable commodity, the access to a database of identified faces and corresponding web presences has many sounding alarm bells.

Major tech players like Google and Facebook have so far refrained from releasing similar public facial search products, likely due to these thorny privacy and ethical issues. “We have long been worried about the feature creep and potential for abuse of facial recognition,” says Nate Wessler, a deputy project director with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

So how accurate and comprehensive are PimEyes’s results? Based on anecdotal reports, it seems to vary. Some users who tested the site by uploading their own photos were surprised to find images dug up from years ago on long-forgotten websites or social media profiles.

Others found no exact matches, with PimEyes instead returning photos of similar looking strangers. The site itself admits it is not 100% accurate.

To access the specific URLs where photos are found, users must pay a subscription fee – $29.99/mo for the basic plan allowing 25 searches a day, all the way up to $299.99/mo for unlimited searches.

This paywall for more detailed info has led some to speculate PimEyes’s results could be a bait-and-switch to drive curious users to pay. The company denies this.

For those alarmed at their inclusion in the database, PimEyes does offer an opt-out request form on their website, though it requires uploading a photo and proof of identity – meaning you may have to further feed their algorithms to get your existing data removed. Over 7,000 people have gone through the opt-out process so far.

As for the legality of PimEyes’s mass scraping and analysis of online photos – many without the consent of the photographer or subject – experts say it falls into a legal gray area that regulators are still grappling with as facial recognition use grows.

The site’s own Terms of Use forbid using it “to infringe on any third party’s privacy or publicity rights.” But practically speaking, once the search results are in a user’s hands, there’s little to enforce how that information is ultimately used.

Until stronger protections are in place, the genie may already be out of the bottle when it comes to AI connecting names to the myriad of faces floating around the web. Wessler recommends that those concerned carefully curate what photos they put online. “There’s an arms race between privacy and technology right now,” he says. “And technology is winning.”

User Comments:

“I had no reason to believe it’s a scam at all, but there is always a possibility. I will look into the website more later today”

“Pretty crazy they want me to pay $20 to see the source of where my random photo is posted. That’s f*cked”

“So I would rather this be publicly available instead of only available to governments and corporations – which we all know we can’t stop them from doing this, and we know they are more often than not bad actors – so I have to see it as a public good that it’s at least available to everyone.”

“We really need regulations against this kind of thing.”

“The cat is out of the bag. There is no stopping this, that’s the nature of software like this. Anyone can code it up in their basement with open source tools”

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