Is­raeli firm un­der­cuts fa­cial recog­ni­tion to bol­ster pri­vacy

Kuwait Times - - Technology -

TEL AVIV: Big brother is watch­ing. But in the future he may no longer be so all-know­ing. Rid­ing the wave of a global push to com­ply with new pri­vacy stan­dards, a small Is­raeli com­pany be­lieves it can help you, and your face, stay anony­mous in a hy­per-con­nected world. The startup, called D-ID, says it has de­vel­oped a “fire­wall” to block fa­cial recog­ni­tion, the ubiq­ui­tous tech­nol­ogy that can now un­lock smart­phones, tag friends on Face­book, or help po­lice pick out an in­di­vid­ual hiding in a crowd.

The prob­lem is that with fa­cial recog­ni­tion on the rise, hack­ers have a new tar­get: huge reser­voirs of profile pic­tures linked to per­sonal in­for­ma­tion. Com­pa­nies around the world are spend­ing big money to pro­tect such data­bases be­fore a stricter Euro­pean law takes ef­fect in May. Called the Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion (GDPR), it gives peo­ple more con­trol over their on­line in­for­ma­tion and ap­plies to all groups that do busi­ness in Europe.

The idea for D-ID took shape a decade ago, when two of its founders took a trip to South Amer­ica after serv­ing in Is­rael’s spe­cial forces. Friends would post pic­tures on­line, but be­cause of their pre­vi­ous jobs, they were for­bid­den from shar­ing pic­tures pub­licly in case they were rec­og­nized. They be­gan look­ing for a way for peo­ple to share pic­tures while pro­tect­ing their iden­ti­ties and a year ago formed the com­pany. The chal­lenge was to foil fa­cial recog­ni­tion al­go­rithms, which an­a­lyse a per­son’s face and match it to a stored dig­i­tal im­age in the same way that crime scene fin­ger­prints are run against a data­base.

“More and more or­ga­ni­za­tions are using our faces as iden­ti­fiers, if it’s to ac­cess our phones, to with­draw money or at bor­der con­trols. That’s why our pho­tos must be pro­tected, be­cause un­like pass­words, you can­not change your face,” said Gil Perry, D-ID’s CEO. De­sign­ers have cre­ated eye­glasses that re­flect light to jam cam­eras and web­sites of­fer fashion and make-up tips for cam­ou­flag­ing your face, but in gen­eral lit­tle can be done to avoid be­ing iden­ti­fied.

Dig­i­tal alchemy

D-ID’s so­lu­tion is a sys­tem of dig­i­tal alchemy that sub­tly al­ters stored pic­tures, enough to es­cape de­tec­tion by fa­cial recog­ni­tion al­go­rithms. Side by side the changes are no­tice­able, but on its own the al­tered pic­ture ap­pears nor­mal. DID is plan­ning a pi­lot with Cloud­i­nary, a firm that man­ages 15 bil­lion cloud-based im­ages and videos for web and mo­bile de­vel­op­ers. It has also signed pre­lim­i­nary agree­ments with a num­ber of lead­ing gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions Perry would not dis­close which ones, nor how much the prod­uct will sell for. The prod­uct launch is planned for the end of May, around the time the new Euro­pean law takes ef­fect. Yu­val Elovici, who heads the cy­ber se­cu­rity re­search cen­ter at Is­rael’s Ben Gu­rion Univer­sity, said there is now an “arms race” be­tween groups de­vel­op­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion al­go­rithms and those look­ing to con­found them. He said DID’s tech­nol­ogy was an achieve­ment and im­por­tant for pri­vacy, but that it did have its lim­i­ta­tions. “You can­not oblige ev­ery­body to use this tech­nol­ogy and to pub­lish pic­tures only after a trans­for­ma­tion,” he said.

Tech star­tups are of­ten lo­cated in high-rises of Tel Aviv’s fi­nan­cial dis­trict. D-ID’s sec­ond-floor of­fice is se­cluded in an in­con­spic­u­ous res­i­den­tial block, op­po­site a play­ground. It has raised $4 mil­lion, in­clud­ing from Is­rael’s Pi­tango Ven­ture Cap­i­tal and Sil­i­con Val­ley’s Y Com­bi­na­tor, to sup­port a team of 14 com­puter en­gi­neers. There are draw­backs. For law en­force­ment agen­cies using the sys­tem it will be harder to lo­cate a sus­pect. So D-ID is work­ing on a so­lu­tion that will al­low such agen­cies to au­then­ti­cate iden­ti­ties with­out stor­ing bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion, Perry said. How? He de­clined to elab­o­rate. —

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