Geopolitics

Anonymity Killer, Russian App Takes Facial Recognition Mainstream

FindFace, a revolutionary facial recognition tool, makes it possible to instantly identify an attractive stranger or petty criminal. It could also provide states with new ways to monitor their citizens' activities.

A young man using FindFace
Emmanuel Grynszpan

MOSCOW â€" 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 â€" 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.”

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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