How Photos of Your Kids Are Powering Surveillance TechnologyOctober 11, 2019
The pictures of Chloe and Jasper Papa as kids are typically goofy fare: grinning with their parents; sticking their tongues out; costumed for Halloween. Their mother, Dominique Allman Papa, uploaded them to Flickr after joining the photo-sharing site in 2005.
None of them could have foreseen that 14 years later, those images would reside in an unprecedentedly huge facial-recognition database called MegaFace. Containing the likenesses of nearly 700,000 individuals, it has been downloaded by dozens of companies to train a new generation of face-identification algorithms, used to track protesters, surveil terrorists, spot problem gamblers and spy on the public at large. The average age of the people in the database, its creators have said, is 16.
“It’s gross and uncomfortable,” said Mx. Papa, who is now 19 and attending college in Oregon. “I wish they would have asked me first if I wanted to be part of it. I think artificial intelligence is cool and I want it to be smarter, but generally you ask people to participate in research. I learned that in high school biology.”
Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
By law, most Americans in the database don’t need to be asked for their permission — but the Papas should have been.
As residents of Illinois, they are protected by one of the strictest state privacy laws on the books: the Biometric Information Privacy Act, a 2008 measure that imposes financial penalties for using an Illinoisan’s fingerprints or face scans without consent. Those who used the database — companies including Google, Amazon, Mitsubishi Electric, Tencent and SenseTime — appear to have been unaware of the law, and as a result may have huge financial liability, according to several lawyers and law professors familiar with the legislation.
How MegaFace was born
How did the Papas and hundreds of thousands of other people end up in the database? It’s a roundabout story.
In the infancy of facial-recognition technology, researchers developed their algorithms with subjects’ clear consent: In the 1990s, universities had volunteers come to studios to be…