IBM accused of using Flickr photos for Facial-Recognition project without Consent

IBM condemned for facial recognition on Flickr

Technology company IBM has been accused of using photos from Flickr for a facial-recognition project without the full consent of the people in the images. It was reported that the company collected nearly one million photos from a dataset of Flickr images, originally composed by Yahoo.

According to an NBC News report, many of those in the images were likely unaware of how their data had been used. While IBM said in a statement that it had taken great care to respect privacy principles, a digital rights group said its actions represented a “huge threat” to people’s privacy.

Some photographers whose images were included in IBM’s dataset were surprised when NBC informed them that their photographs had been taken and annotated with details including facial geometry and skin tone to develop facial recognition algorithms.

Boston-based public relations executive Greg Peverill-Conti, who has more than 700 photos in IBM’s collection, said his image subjects were completely unaware of the kind of activity their images were being used for.

“None of the people I photographed had any idea their images were being used in this way,” he said. “It seems a little sketchy that IBM can use these pictures without saying anything to anybody.”

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Facial recognition technology is a clear infringement on people’s privacy. Credit: Fortune

IBM’s selected photos were under Flickr’s Creative Commons licence, which means images can be used with only limited restrictions and terms. For example, giving the appropriate credit, linking back to the license and indicating if any changes to the image were made.

John Smith, who oversees AI research at IBM stated that the company was committed to “protecting the privacy of individuals” and “will work with anyone who requests a URL to be removed from the dataset”.

However, despite these assurances of opting out of IBM’s database, it was discovered by NBC News that it’s almost impossible to get photos removed.

While IBM requires photographers to link back to photos they wish to be removed, the company has not shared a public list of Flickr users and photos included in the dataset, making it difficult to find out whose photos are included. That, and opting out of the database would only be an option if an individual was aware their data had been used in the first place.

This kind of data can be used to help artificial neural networks better differentiate between faces in order for individuals to be recognised in different images, in order to be identified.

While it may sound like a good step forward in artificial intelligence, digital rights group Privacy International said IBM were wrong to use the photos without consent from the image subjects.

“Flickr’s community guidelines explicitly say ‘Don’t be creepy’. Unfortunately, IBM has gone far beyond this” it said. “Using these photos in this way is a flagrant brand of anti-creepiness – as well as a huge threat to people’s privacy.”

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People who don’t oppose facial recognition, don’t value privacy or their privacy rights. Credit: Acart Communications

Numerous photographers have spoken out about their photos being used for IBM’s dataset with a mixed reaction – while some are disgruntled over the photos being used without permission, others were pleased to hear their images being used to advance facial recognition technology.

Australian photographer and entrepreneur, Georg Holzer, uploaded photos of friends and family to Flickr to remember happy or special moments with them, and used a Creative Commons licence to allow nonprofits and artists to use his photos for free.

“I know about the harm such technology can cause,” he said. “Of course, you can never forget about the good uses of image recognition such as finding family pictures faster, but it can also be used to restrict fundamental rights and privacy. I can never approve or accept the widespread use of such a technology.”

Mr Holzer was also concerned that even IBM’s research division had used his photos under a noncommercial licence.

“Since I assume that IBM is not a charitable organisation and at the end of the day wants to make money with this technology, this is clearly a commercial use.”

On the other hand, Neil Moralee, a UK-based food consultant and photographer supported his photos being used to advance the facial recognition field.

“Facial recognition is one of those things we can’t uninvent, so having a reliable system is better than one that generates errors and false identifications,” he said

NBC News have created a tool where you can enter your Flickr username to see if your photos are part of the IBM’s dataset.


Story by Emily Clark

Featured Photo Credit: Sky

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