At the beginning of this week, Microsoft pulled the plug on MS Celeb, a facial recognition database containing more than 10 million images. The decision came after the Financial Times’ investigation concluded that Microsoft’s picture-gathering methods infringed upon the General Data Protection Regulation. Microsoft denied any legal implication and stated that all the scraped material was used for academical purposes only.
Was MS Celeb Part of an Orwellian Conspiracy?
Earlier this week, Financial Times has revealed that MS Celeb’s database, which amassed over 10 million photos of some 100,000 have been collected without the users’ consent.
Moreover, despite the fact that most of the pictures were taken from public domains, some were collected directly from the users’ online accounts such as Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms.
In responding to the allegations, Microsoft declared that the scraped pictures were being used to improve the facial recognition algorithm, a very promising project that involved collaboration with Stanford and Duke Universities.
The purpose of MS Celeb was to detect a person’s face in a series of pictures. Microsoft said that it was for academical purposes only and that the database was never intended to be to keep tabs on people.
As a gesture of goodwill, Microsoft has vouched that the entire database has been wiped clean. Moreover, both Stanford and Duke have confirmed that they too have pulled the plug on MS Celeb and purged the rest of the pictures from their servers.
The investigation conducted by Financial Times revealed that Microsoft taking down the databases is not enough, as the company may encounter some legal issues.
We would like to remind our readers that under the General Data Protection Regulation, using audio or video content without prior approval is an invasion of privacy. In other words, it matters not if Microsoft was conducting research into face recognition algorithms; the picture-gathering process was a breach of privacy.
So far, there hasn’t been any talk of a lawsuit against Microsoft and its collaborators. However, will not stay the same. Again, this type of data mining is an overt breach of the GDPR. Furthermore, if not for FT’s investigation, the project would have gone forward unimpeded.
A Microsoft spokesperson also declared that the purged database was curated by a single employee who’s no longer with the company after Financial Times published the results of its investigation.
MS Celeb is dead, long live another facial recognition algorithm. Has FT’s investigation revealed some sort of Orwellian conspiracy? It’s difficult to tell. Some time ago (two years to be precise), a scandal rocked the White House after a similar investigation revealed that the CIA had been tacitly collecting photos of various US citizens.
Nothing could be proved at the time, as the CIA dismissed the homeland spying allegations, declaring that the collected data was only used to create a powerful facial recognition algorithm.
An in-depth analysis of the algorithm concluded that it was very inaccurate; returning false-positive results 15 percent of the time and would have trouble recognizing African-American citizens.