A popular image search website can seriously erode your real life privacy, according to a report of The New York Times.
Journalist Kashmir Hill tested PimEyes, a $30/month face search engine that was found to be awfully comprehensive and accurate. After submitting photos of the faces of a dozen Time employees on the site and verifying a terms of service agreement, the site returned a rather nightmarish result.
As Hill notes, “PimEyes found photos of each person, some the reporters had never seen before, even when they were wearing sunglasses or a mask, or their faces were turned away from the camera. , in the image used to perform the search. ”
The reporters’ photos included a photo of an art museum from a decade ago, a crowd taken at a music festival and even a photo of a stranger taken at a Greek airport in 2019 on which the journalist appears in the background.
It gets worse: PimEyes wasn’t crawling social media sites for these photos, but rather fetching news articles, wedding photography pages, review sites, blogs, and even porn pages – and the Errors made by the search engine generally stemmed from misidentifying female journalists as possibly people featured on these adult sites. And while you’re only “supposed” to use PimEyes to search your own face or that of people who consented to the search, there’s nothing stopping anyone from circumventing this flimsy protection.
The site isn’t technically new, but it was bought last year by Giorgi Gobronidze, a 34-year-old academic from Georgia, who thinks the site can bring good (like people watching their online reputation ). Apparently, in some weird news, the website didn’t seem to have any issues identifying people with darker skin tones, so… the terrifying tech behind PimEyes isn’t racist. Hooray?
There are options to “exclude” photos from the results, but this requires a hefty payment under an additional “PROtect plan”. (PimEyes says they offer a free tool, but it’s apparently hard to find.) And a free “disable” service for deleting images apparently didn’t work when the Time tested it.
While German authorities are currently investigating PimEyes, Gobronidze believes the site can still be used for good, noting that he has allowed investigative journalists to use it when identify people which stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. He also blocked Russians from using the site, but says he is ready to allow Ukrainian citizens or Red Cross personnel to use it free of charge to identify missing persons.
Facial search engines may serve a purpose, but even talking about the idea in terms of law enforcement or investigative journalism raises plenty confidentiality issues. Also, the idea that you would be forced to pay to have photos excluded from searches and it wouldn’t work is “essentially extortion,” as one PimEyes user put it.
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