Skip to Content
Security & privacy

Your face might be part of facial recognition databases shared worldwide

Is there any place left where we can remain anonymous? A new report finds that images of millions of unsuspecting Americans have been shared with foreign governments and private companies engaged in building facial recognition technology.

The situation has drawn concern from privacy and security advocates and that’s because many of the images came from strategically placed surveillance cameras in public areas. But it gets even worse.

Those images also came from major social media platforms and even a popular dating site. Your face could be included in one of these databases that have been shared across a number of countries to improve facial recognition systems.

Databases filled with images

An explosive report in the New York Times details how surveillance cameras are being used to obtain 12 million images of Americans’ faces in the race to create cutting edge facial recognition technology. One of those databases dates back about five years.

In 2014, researchers at Stanford University collected images of faces for a database they called Brainwash, named after a San Francisco coffee shop. During a three-day span, Stanford researchers amassed 10,000 images but it’s not known if anyone gave consent.

The database was shared with China’s National University of Defense Technology and then an artificial intelligence (AI) company that provided China with surveillance technology, according to the Times. It’s since been taken offline, but at least one other university (Duke) has also collected thousands of images used to train AI tech in the U.S., China, Japan and Britain.

Your social media photos

Google, Facebook and Microsoft also were named in the Times report as amassing large databases of facial images. Google and Facebook apparently have not shared their databases, but the same can’t be said about Microsoft.

Researchers have said Microsoft has one of the biggest facial recognition databases out there. The collection, called MS Celeb, included more than 10 million images of more than 100,000 people before it was taken down when it was revealed that it too was sharing its database.

It’s not just social media. Images were also taken from a more sensitive platform: a popular dating site.


Related: Stop Facebook from looking for you with face recognition


Dating site joins the party

If you’re on the dating site OkCupid, be warned because a third-party is using the images you post on the site to develop a facial recognition system. AI startup Clarifai said it has built a database using images from OkCupid, with the company’s CEO telling the Times they obtained access because some of OkCupid’s founders invested in his company.

A spokeswoman for OkCupid said Clarifai contacted the company in 2014 “about collaborating to determine if they could build unbiased AI and facial recognition technology.” Clarifai then used images from OkCupid to build a service that could identify the age, sex, and race of detected faces.

It doesn’t stop there. Clarifai also told the Times it would sell its facial recognition technology to foreign governments, military operations and police departments if the circumstances were right.

Is there anything we can do about facial recognition databases?

At what point do our faces no longer belong to us? Unfortunately, the genie may have been let out of that bottle more than a decade ago when Homeland Security and the FBI began facial scans to catch criminals and suspected terrorists.

Last week, a congressional hearing was held to start looking into the government’s use of facial recognition technology. But as privacy advocates point out, there is little if anything people can do about the situation as there is no oversight on facial recognition databases.

However, we can use low-tech items to possibly stymie surveillance cameras. During protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government, marchers wore hats, sunglasses, and bandanas to cover their faces to avoid detection. I guess old school fashion still outduels some modern technology.

Stop robocalls once and for all

Robocalls are not only annoying, but they scam Americans out of millions every year. Learn Kim's tricks for stopping them for good in this handy guide.

Get the eBook