For $29.99 a month, a website called PimEyes offers a potentially
dangerous superpower from the world of science fiction: the
ability to search for a face, finding obscure photos that would
otherwise have been as safe as the proverbial needle in the vast
digital haystack of the internet.
A search takes mere seconds. You upload a photo of a face, check a
box agreeing to the terms of service and then get a grid of photos
of faces deemed similar, with links to where they appear on the
internet. The New York Times used PimEyes on the faces of a dozen
Times journalists, with their consent, to test its powers.
PimEyes found photos of every person, some that the journalists
had never seen before, even when they were wearing sunglasses or a
mask, or their face was turned away from the camera, in the image
used to conduct the search.
I’d never heard of PimEyes before, but suspect we’ll be hearing about it more going forward. I also suspect this is a losing game of whack-a-mole. Machine learning is clearly already good enough to do this with spooky accuracy, and it’s only going to get better. Should we try passing legislation to strictly regulate facial recognition search? Sure. But I suspect it’s futile, particularly given the global nature of the internet.