Have you ever uploaded photos of your kids to Flickr? Guess what. Those photos might have been used – without your knowledge or consent – in a huge database called MegaFace.
What is the MegaFace database?
In the summer of 2014, Yahoo unveiled a massive collection of media that it had gathered from its subsidiary, Flickr. The point of doing so, according to one of the project’s creators, was to “empower the research community by giving them a robust database.”
Well, a team of researchers at The University of Washington accessed the Yahoo collection, downloaded around 4 million photos of nearly 675,000 people, and created MegaFace. Just like the name sounds, MegaFace is a massive database of faces intended to help companies and researchers to improve facial recognition technology. This is the tech that’s used for noble efforts like locating terrorists, but is also used to spy on you.
The U of W research team was particularly interested in photos of chidren. Why? Because, according to The New York Times, “face-recognition systems tend to perform poorly on young people.”
Supposedly the university asked anyone downloading the data to use it only for research and education. But, not surprisingly, that didn’t happen. SenseTime, for example, used the tech to keep tabs on China’s minority Uighur Muslim population.
“As MegaFace is the most widely recognized database of its kind,” said SenseTime’s CMO, June Jin, in an email to The New York Times, “it has become the de facto facial-recognition training and test set for the global academic and research community.”
The good thing is that MegaFace does not contain people’s names. But don’t think that means your photos are anonymous. The New York Times was able to figure out which photo belonged to whom by tracing a numerical ID on each pic that leads right back to the Flickr user’s account.
When the Times attempted to get in touch with researchers at The University of Washington to ask about MegaFace, they were told that no one was available because “they’ve moved on to other projects and don’t have time to comment.”
So, Is This legal?
It depends on where you live. If you’re in Illinois, Texas, or Washington, there are privacy laws in place to protect your content. But in most of the US, there aren’t. As The Times explains, “Privacy law is generally so permissive in the United States that companies are free to use millions of people’s faces without their knowledge to power the spread of face-recognition technology.”
Illinois in particular has a complex law in place to protect their residents from this kind of thing. But that hasn’t stopped companies from using photos of people in that state. There are currently hundreds of ongoing class-action lawsuits in Illinois, including one against Facebook for using facial recognition technology to tag people in photos.
“It’s creepy that you found me,” said Wendy Piersall, a City Council member in Woodstock, Illinois, to The New York Times. The paper was able to locate Wendy via photos of her children in the MegaFace database. “I always lived with the philosophy that what I put out there was public, but I couldn’t have imagined this.”