MOSCOW — Big Brother is already within arm's reach in Russia, and don't blame the Kremlin. Thanks to a new app, people can identify strangers on the street without their knowledge in a matter of seconds: All they need to do is take a picture using a smartphone that has the app FindFace installed.
Designed to "facilitate encounters," this service uses a powerful facial recognition algorithm that is literally putting an end to anonymity, thanks in part to the overabundance of images on social networks.
For now, FindFace only works with one social network, VK (formerly VKontakte, and the Russian equivalent to Facebook), but that's enough to gauge the revolution to come. VK (vk.com), the top social network in Russian-speaking countries, with 350 million accounts and 80 million daily users, is a tremendous springboard for this new technology. It's already possible to identify most Russians under 40, as a very large majority of them have an account on VK, with photographs and other identifying details: first name, last name, age, place of residence and even sometimes a phone number.
There are two other conditions for FindFace to work: The person being searched for must have an account on vk.com, and his or her account photograph must be of sufficiently good quality.
Egor Tsvetkov, a worried photographer
FindFace has been available online since February. But it only became famous in April, after a 21-year-old Russian photographer sought to raise public awareness of the totalitarian excesses the app made possible.
Egor Tsvetkov took pictures of dozens of strangers in the metro without their knowledge and then posted his work, called "Your face is big data," online in early April. For each identified individual, Tsvetkov's photograph appears alongside a picture of the same person taken from their VK profile. But Tsvetkov mostly succeeded in making the app go viral: The number of downloads exploded, quickly surpassing 450,000.
Tsvetkov says the app identified 70% of the young people he took pictures of, while the rate was lower with older people, who are not as frequently present on social networks. These results are in line with estimates from the creators of FindFace, who say the app has a 73% successful identification rate.
Facial recognition interface on FindFace application — Photo: Official Facebook Page
More efficient than Google
Developed by the FindFace owner NTechLab, the Russian algorithm turned out to be much more efficient than Google and its rival technology FaceNet in an identification contest organized by the University of Washington last December.
A few days after FindFace went viral, Russia's online trolls came out in full force. A group of anti-pornography advocates started using the app to reveal the real identity of hundreds of young Russian women who posed nude in videos or magazines, or prostituted themselves on the internet. Some went even further by harassing the young women and their families on VK, with numerous Russian media outlets covering the ensuing controversy.
Opening the door to all kinds of abuse
Responding by email to questions about possible downsides to his product, NTechLab founder and chief executive officer Artem Kuharenko expressed regret about certain uses of the app.
"NTechLac is ready to collaborate with and assist state institutions and the police around the world in preventing illegal uses of our technology. We are also developing a technology that will allow us to automatically track intrusions on a daily basis."
He thinks the Russian police "is already using FindFace in its everyday tasks."
No doubt this technology will soon catch on worldwide. Kuharenko said he is currently in talks with Silicon Valley "companies from different sectors," such as dating, security and e-commerce, as well as government institutions.
For instance, "NTechLab is considering working with dating services such as Badoo," Kuharenko said.
The untapped potential of facial identification tools is huge, and simultaneously reassuring for those who fear petty crime and frightening for human rights defenders.
"This technology poses a particular risk for civil society activists and opponents," says Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer and member of RosComSvoboda, an organization that defends freedom of expression online. "It's now very easy to keep records in real time of individuals taking part in protests. That makes monitoring these individuals easier. It's a new threat to civil society, particularly in the Russian context, where the state restricts the rights of its citizens."