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Prepare Your Alibi: New 'Dystopian' Facial Recognition Apps Could Erase Your Privacy In Seconds

Have you ever photobombed a group while drunk at a nightclub?

Or have you ever wondered how many photos you might be in, but you’re just in the background and not exactly involved? What if every photo and video that has ever been shared on social media could be indexed so you could be “tagged”? And what if someone could snap a photo of you and use it to search through that database?

It could make things a little interesting.

Hoan Ton-That is an Australian developer who has created a facial recognition app  -- Clearview AI -- that allows a user to take a picture of a person, upload it, and view all public photos of that person that have ever been posted online.

It is unlike anything of its kind in terms of scope and scale, with an unprecedentedly large searchpool of images -- some three billion -- 'scraped' from social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. The images are then saved in the app's servers, and remain searchable even if the original photo has been deleted, or its privacy has changed from 'public' to 'private'.

Your photobombs could soon come back to haunt you. (Image: Getty)

Right now, the app is being used by more than 600 US law enforcement agencies, which, in the past,  have been limited to searching for suspects in government-issued photo databases.

And it's been a game changer. 

Police in the state of Indiana solved a case within 20 minutes of using it.  After a fight between two men in a park ended in a shooting, police used a still image of the suspect's face from a bystander's video, uploaded it into the app, and got multiple photo matches instantaneously -- and also learned the suspect's identity, as his name was used in photo captions.

According to reports, the app has so far helped solve murder cases, shoplifting cases, child sex crimes, and fraud.

For US law enforcement, the app has been a game changer. (Image: Getty)

The technology could make its way into Australia. 

Even if you don't have a Facebook or YouTube account yourself, or any social media presence at all, you still have probably, at some point, appeared in a public picture or video uploaded by someone else -- and you’re probably in these types of databases. 

So, why should we care about facial recognition software like this? It’s a double-edged sword.

On one hand, criminal identification should be easier, and on the other, our privacy is no longer sacred. And the implications for misuse are staggering.  

When an image of your face can be the key to unlocking both your identity and a treasure chest of your past, your mind starts to unravel your personal history for areas of concern.

Employers once Googled an applicant's name to see what could be uncovered about them -- now a photo taken during an interview or from CCTV could be the key to a potential boss seeing everything you don't want them to know.

Politicians, religious figures, teachers, your boss -- anyone could easily have decades of their past dug up, and their world turned upside down.

Sitting in a cafe? Your history and identity could be dug up by the person at the next table before you finish your latte. Imagine someone looking your way and making you feel uncomfortable on public transport -- they could take a covert image of you, upload it into an app, and in seconds have your name, or other sensitive information like where you live, where you work, what you did last week or who your family members are. 

With this type of technology, your privacy could be erased in seconds. (Image: Getty)

The app is currently only in the hands of law enforcement -- but imagine it being used by an unscrupulous officer. And how long will it be before we simply find these kinds of apps on the Apple or Google App Store? Sussing out your Tinder date, looking into the boy that your daughter is 'just hanging out with' or learning more about your lecturer at University would take a matter of seconds.

There are other concerns. What, if any, are these types of developers' abilities to protect this private, sensitive information? The legality of this technology is also being called into question -- it is against most social media platforms' terms of use policies for uploaded images to be 'scraped'.

Yet, there should be some thought towards how this type of technology could potentially benefit us. Need multiple forms of ID? One click, and you’ll find dozens of photos with your name tagged. What about using your face for payments? Maybe. What about ticketing at footy match or concert? You could walk into the stadium and be identified on the way in. We may not need to carry passports anymore -- we’d be simply identified at any airport, perhaps before we even enter. It would be impossible to escape -- there would be no such thing as missing people anymore. Your face could potentially be tracked across any image-capturing device. 

In some ways we already give up this kind of privacy. Whether it's having our photos taken before we enter clubs, giving our IDs to the desk at the RSL for scanning, or even going through security at the airport where we pose for a photo before departure. Remember those nightclub photographs? They’ve all become a fantastic source of information for this app. 

We’ve always been a world that is comfortable with giving up some privacy for convenience, but to what extent can we push it? (Image: Getty)

We’ve actually been preparing for something like this already. The Google Lens app allows us to identify plant types, dog breeds and even the type of food we’re eating. The Apple Photos app and Google Photos app can automatically identify known people through machine-learning and recognise faces in all of your photos. This new technology is just extending that to every photo album online.

The more interesting part is where this process of searching for your identity using your image becomes automated -- when security cameras can automatically know who is on the premises or in a public space, then link it to information about you.  At that point, you’ve really let go of privacy.

Outside of your home, you might as well wear your name across your chest.

We’ve always been a world that is comfortable with giving up some privacy for convenience, but to what extent can we push it? In the coming years, that comfort will be tested.

In July last year,  new bills were proposed to authorise Home Affairs to maintain a centralised database of facial images using government- issued documents like passports and driver's licenses. If it was in preparation for the implementation of something like this new technology, we’re yet to know.

But whether Ton-That brings it to Australia or not, this type of activity is already on the table.  We might as well start preparing our alibis.