Yandex Is Facial Recognition for the Public

Nelson Minar building on top of a report published last month in Bellingcat about Yandex’s superior reverse image search:

Right now an ordinary person still can’t, for free, take a random photo of a stranger and find the name for him or her. But with Yandex they can. Yandex has been around a long time and is one of the few companies in the world that is competitive to Google. Their index is heavily biased to Eastern European data, but they have enough global data to find me and Andrew Yang.

If you use Google Photos or Facebook you’ve probably encountered their facial recognition. It’s magic, the matching works great. It’s also very limited. Facebook seems to only show you names for faces that people you have some sort of Facebook connection to. Google Photos similarly doesn’t volunteer random names. They could do more; Facebook could match a face to any Facebook user, for instance. But both services seem to have made a deliberate decision not to be a general purpose facial recognition service to identify strangers.

At the time that I linked to the Bellingcat report, I wondered why Google’s reverse image recognition, in particular, was so bad in comparison. In tests, it even missed imagery from Google Street View despite Google regularly promoting its abilities in machine learning, image identification, and so on. In what I can only explain as a massive and regrettable oversight, it is clear to me that the reason Google’s image search is so bad is because Google designed it that way. Otherwise, Google would have launched something like Yandex or Clearview AI, and that would be dangerous.

Google’s restraint is admirable. What’s deeply worrying is that it is optional — that Google could, at any time, change its mind. There are few regulations in the United States that would prevent Google or any other company from launching its own invasive and creepy facial recognition system. Recall that the only violation that could be ascribed to Clearview’s behaviour — other than an extraordinary violation of simple ethics — is that the company scraped social media sites’ images without permission. It’s a pretty stupid idea to solely rely upon copyright law as a means of reining in facial recognition.