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Why Silicon Valley hasn't released face search engines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At a supermarket or a baseball game or most public places, you can generally expect to be anonymous. That could end if big tech companies release a tool that lets you search for a person by taking a photo of their face. The effect could be so worrisome that even Silicon Valley has been reluctant to unveil it, as NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Imagine walking down a busy street and snapping a photo of a stranger, then uploading that photo into a search engine that helps you identify the person. This isn't a hypothetical. It's already happening now thanks to a website called PimEyes. Developed by two hackers in Poland, it's an AI tool that's like a reverse image search on steroids. It scans a face in the photo and crawls the dark corners of the internet to surface photos many people didn't even know existed of themselves - in the background of restaurants or attending a concert. Imagine if this technology became widespread and even spookier, says journalist Kashmir Hill.

KASHMIR HILL: Something happens on a train. You bump into somebody, or you're wearing something embarrassing. Somebody could just take your photo and find out who you are and maybe tweet about you and kind of call you out by name or write nasty things about you online.

ALLYN: Hill is a New York Times reporter who recently published a book about facial recognition technology called "Your Face Belongs To Us." She says super-powerful face search engines have been developed at big tech companies like Meta and Google. But executives there, like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have been reluctant to release them into the world.

HILL: Eric Schmidt, as far back as 2011, said that this was the one technology that Google had developed and decide to hold back, that it was too dangerous in the wrong hands - if it was used by a dictator, for example.

ALLYN: There are potential upsides to this technology for people who are blind. Or if you see someone at a party whose name you forget, you could snap a photo and instantly identify them. But on the flip, stalkers have already used it, and government and private companies could deploy the technology to profile or surveil people in public.

HILL: It's this debate that society needs to have, whether we all want this superpower or not.

ALLYN: Facial recognition tools are already out in the world. You can unlock your iPhone by letting the phone scan your irises. And the TSA is now scanning faces at airports to identify people. But a face search engine would take this idea to an entirely different level. And while big tech companies have been holding back, smaller startups pushing the technology are gaining momentum, like PimEyes and another called Clearview AI, which provides AI-powered face search engines to law enforcement. PimEyes and Clearview AI did not make anyone available for an interview. Woodrow Hartzog studies facial recognition technology. He's a professor at Boston University School of Law. He says Washington needs to regulate, even outright ban the tools before it becomes too widespread.

WOODROW HARTZOG: I think that it should really tell you something about how radioactive and corrosive facial recognition is that the larger tech companies have resisted weighting in even when there's so much money to be made on it.

ALLYN: Most Silicon Valley watchers say it's just a matter of time. Look at AI chatbots, for example. Silicon Valley giants had developed them for years in labs but only released them when a smaller startup, OpenAI, made ChatGPT available to the public. Eventually, tech watchers say big tech companies will have no choice but to make advanced face search engines publicly available. It's a future Hartzog is hoping never comes to pass.

HARTZOG: If facial recognition is deployed widely, then it's virtually the end of the ability to hide in plain sight, which we do all the time and we don't really think about.

ALLYN: In the EU, lawmakers are debating a ban of facial recognition technology in public spaces. Brussels-based activist Ella Jakubowska is hoping regulators go even further and ban the tools altogether. She's behind a campaign called Reclaim Your Face that is warning against a society where visits to the doctor, a stroll down a college campus or even crossing a street will expose someone's face to scanning. In some parts of the continent, it's already happening.

ELLA JAKUBOWSKA: We've seen in Italy the use of biometric and - they call them "smart," quote-unquote, surveillance systems used to detect if people are loitering or trespassing.

ALLYN: Jakubowska says the EU's so-called AI Act will be coming up with rules over how biometric data like someone's face, fingerprints and voice will be regulated.

JAKUBOWSKA: We reject the idea that, as human beings, we should be treated as walking barcodes so that governments can keep tabs on us even when we haven't done anything wrong.

ALLYN: In the U.S., meanwhile, there are laws in some states, like Illinois, that give people protection over how their face is scanned and used by private companies. But until there is federal regulation, how and where faces are recorded will be determined largely by tech companies. Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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