Riya: Facial recognition for the masses

My earlier musings on Web 2.0’s focus on the collection of (personal) metadata and the potential for the commercial aggregation of images of my likeness come into renewed focus with the launch of Riya (needs IE6 for PC; Firefox for Mac). Riya is a photo sharing and search site that lets you tag and search images based on facial and text recognition technology. Here’s how it works: you upload your photo library to Riya and “tag” the faces in your photos by putting a box around them and labelling it with the person’s name. After you have named a few faces, Riya’s facial recognition technology will take over and attempt to automatically tag different faces it “recognizes” so that you don’t have to.

From Riya’s vision statement:

Riya is more than photo search. Our goal is to help you find every photo of yourself on the web. We want to help you recover every moment, every place you’ve been and all of the people you’ve met along the way. We want to give you the tools to discover your future, every place you want to go and meet new friends. We will be successful when we can find every digital photo in the world.

In essence, Riya aims to create a vast database of facial recognition profiles. Sure, it would be great if I could easily search for pictures of me on the web, but do I want others to be able to do that as well? Could this provide a useful tool for stalkers looking for a particular person? Abusive partners trying to track down their victim? (Note that Riya also uploads and indexes all the metadata related to your photos, including the date and time is was taken, when it was uploaded, etc. Users can also tag and search photos based on location).

I don’t want to be alarmist, but there are externalities once all of the images of our daily lives (and their related metadata) are uploaded to the Internet, indexed, searchable, and accessible to all. I haven’t had time to fully consider this new trend, but it deserves serious attention.


  1. (reposted from my response to your comment on Jeff Jarvis’s blog)

    You are right…you training Riya to recognize people in your photographs creates specific digital signatures…but really, these signatures only reside in your account (unless you choose to share them with contacts on Riya, then you share the digital signatures with only those people).

    The software isn’t nearly powerful enough to create universal digital signatures. Yes, that would be frightening…and we never aim to do this specific thing. For one, facial recognition is an incredibly hard issue to solve. There are oodles of people who look similar in the world who pose in various different ways. The amount of mistakes Riya would make would make it impossible to find anyone anyway.

    Government security computer vision is done in very controlled environments. When we get our passport photos taken, there are certain conditions they require us to meet: lighting, straight-on pose, no glasses, no smiling, etc. The cameras they use at airports are placed to meet the same conditions. Everyday photographs rarely, if ever, produce these pristine conditions.

    The metadata collected (ie. time stamp, etc.) is pretty standard for photo storage/sharing sites that many already use. i.e. Flickr, Ofoto, Picasa, Shutterfly, even Google images…it’s pretty standard to use the jpg EXIF data. Being a photo search company, we see this as useful information.

    Of course, this level of transparency is not for everyone. I, personally, recognize this. I can understand how scary the technology sounds. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Whoah, CSI!”

    Basically, the thought was behind using face and text recognition to automatically tag the photos is that, instead of searching around photos like Google and Yahoo! image search does, we wanted to search inside photos to produce better results.

    The catch-22 is, of course, that the face recognition works best on personal photographs…you may want to find them, but you certainly don’t want strangers to.

    Because I highly doubt that we will just abandon the project (obviously there are many who are more excited by the possibility of searching photos smarter than they are concerned about national security), what we need now are suggestions from concerned people like yourselves on how to implement security measures. We are also chatting with the EFF coming up to try and figure out ways to balance security with usability.

    I would love your further comments/suggestions on this. Feel free to email me personally at tara at riya dot com.

  2. Pingback: Privacy Digest: Privacy News (Civil Rights, Encryption, Free Speech, Cryptography)

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