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Microsoft, Duke, and Stanford quietly delete databases with millions of faces

Microsoft, Duke, and Stanford quietly delete databases with millions of faces
[Photo: mauro mora/Unsplash]

Microsoft has been leading the charge in its calls to regulate the use of facial recognition technology. Last year, the company’s president, Brad Smith, spoke about fears of the creepy technology that is creeping into everyday life and eroding our civil liberties along the way. It also turned down a facial recognition contract with California law enforcement on human rights grounds.

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Now comes word that Microsoft has deleted its facial recognition database of more than 10 million images of some 100,000 people that was reportedly being used by companies to test their facial recognition software.

The database, known as MS Celeb, was the largest public facial recognition dataset in the world, amassed by scraping images off the web under a Creative Commons license that allows academic reuse of photos. According to Microsoft Research’s paper on the database, it was originally designed to train tools for image captioning and news video analysis.

However, after its existence was revealed by Adam Harvey, a Berlin-based artist and researcher, the Financial Times (paywall) ran an in-depth investigation that revealed that giant tech companies like IBM and Panasonic, and Chinese firms such as SenseTime and Megvii, as well as military researchers, were using the massive database to test their facial recognition software. Now Microsoft has quietly taken MS Celeb down.

“The site was intended for academic purposes,” Microsoft told FT.com, explaining that they had deleted it, because “it was run by an employee that is no longer with Microsoft and has since been removed.” Engadget reports that after the FT‘s investigation, data sets built by researchers at Duke University and Stanford University were also taken down.

While it’s good that someone is stepping up to lead, don’t hurt your hands applauding Microsoft too hard. The company may claim it wants regulations for facial recognition, but it also wants to use facial recognition technology to sell you stuff at Kroger through Minority Report-like ads—and it has eluded privacy-related scrutiny for years.

And even though these face databases have been taken down, that doesn’t mean their data aren’t still floating around the web.

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