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Flickr & Face Recognition

It’s real. They sold our photos.

a pair of caucasian hands holding a white iphone in horizontal orientation. It is in photo mode and is taking a picture of roman bust sculptures. The green face-tagging boxes are around the faces of the sculptures

The New York Times shakes down the story of artificial-intelligence-training database service MegaFace, and how photos of more than 672,000 people on photo sharing site Flickr were used to populate it. The article doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

The MegaFace founders say they used only photos that were designated as Creative Commons by their photographers. Creative Commons (CC) has a few different designations, though, and “able to be used for massive face-recognition development” is not one of them. It’s a distinction that needs to be made clear going forward. Letting a lone blogger use your image for their blog post without charging them is the main use for CC. But even if it isn’t the main use, then the general understanding in the Flickr and larger culture is still that CC is used in this way. This article comes as a shock to a lot of media creators; Surveillance, government-led or otherwise, is not something we had in mind when we clicked off our CC boxes. I have posted tech events here in Philly and although I did tell people I was planning to post to Flickr, I did not tell them that China, the NSA, Microsoft and every university lab across the USA and overseas would have a copy of their face in their databases.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

I’ll be deleting stuff off Flickr. I’ve been a pro member for a long time but going forward, I don’t see how sharing any photo online is safe. Sure, you probably won’t experience any disruption to your everyday life if the government develops artificial intelligence that now knows your face. In the long game that we’re all playing, though, this is a tool that can be easily used for mass oppression. I realize I sound wack. I get it. My security friends and I joke about how crazy we sound to non-techie people. Non-techie people want to post their family reunion pics on Facebook and they don’t want to pay for the privilege. They disregard any warnings we send. But even I wasn’t paying attention to this MegaFace development, and it all happened between the early days of the social web, when I was active at Flickr.com, and now, when I am not. Still, I should have known better. I put very few pics of family and friends on Facebook or Twitter. I paid for Flickr pro but I simply never thought about it. I don’t have family on there much if at all but I have hundreds of photos of Philadelphians gathering at tech events. It all has to go now.

We can’t possibly know now where all of this is going, but we can guess. And like I said, it ain’t a pretty picture.

Picture by Alexander Baxevanis on Flickr

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