“Digilantes” find that facial recognition still sucks

When a group of digilantes formed a Google Group last week dedicated to applying facial recognition technology to photos from the London riots to identify culprits, it caused quite a stir in the media. But the group’s organizer contacted Kashmir Hill at Forbes over the weekend to say that they have abandoned the project.

They created an experimental app using tools from Face.com and tested it with 30 of their friends. Their plan had been to release a Facebook app to the public so that people in the UK could volunteer to scan riot photos to see if any of the ne’er-do-wells were friends of theirs. (Not good friends, I’d have to assume.) They also gave me access to the app to give it a try. The results were too disappointing for the digilantes to actually release it. It wasn’t identifying people it should (friends of the guinea pigs) with high degrees of confidence, and it was saying with relatively high degrees of confidence that rioters were people who they were not.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard says it is putting facial recognition technology into use, according to the AP, using a face-recognizing tool that was being developed in preparation for hosting the Olympics in 2012.

And Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic

[P]erhaps the British surveillance state won’t make much of a difference in preventing future riots or prosecuting people in the aftermath of this one. If law enforcement there isn’t any better at punishing rioters than their analogues in other countries, that’s a strong argument for rethinking their whole system: if surveillance doesn’t prevent wanton street violence and property destruction, the notion that its benefits outweigh its costs (loss of privacy and potential abuse by authorities) is all the more dubious.

Google Group Members to Use Facial Recognition to Identify London Rioters

(TechCrunch)

A new Google Group called “London Riots Facial Recognition” has appeared online, in the wake of the riots that rocked the U.K. capital over the weekend. The group’s goal is to use facial recognition technologies to identify the looters who appear in online photos.

The group appears to be thoughtfully considering its actions, in threads titled “Ethical Issues,” and “Keeping Things Legal,” for example. They’ve also stated that “it’s important we only use legal sources for images.”

However, there’s a major “creepy” factor to this undertaking, too. The idea that a group of people would team up online to use (misuse?) facial recognition technologies in this way, notably outside professional law enforcement channels, seems like a modern take on vigilante style justice, where the torches of the angry villagers have turned into APIs and algorithms.

In one newer thread, started just this morning, a commenter offers their assistance in building a tool using the Face.API, which could help identify people in photos posted on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. There is even talk of using the Facebook Graph API and the Twitter API in conjunction with the Face.com one to help better identify the criminals.

While clearly, we have nothing against criminals being brought to justice, there still may be some concerns involved with this type of online behavior. As argued here on Hacker News, this method could incriminate people who were not participating, but were bystanders, or simply trying to get home. Whether their actions here are legal, whether or not they involve public photos, the question is – do we want to crowdsource justice in this way?