You're at a restaurant, minding your own business. There's a woman at the table next to you diddling around on her phone, but what you don't know is she has noticed you. Not only that, she's taken a photograph of you and put it into a face recognition app. She has figured out who you are, and now she's looking at pictures of your mom's 60th birthday party on Facebook.
Is that weird? Kinda creepy? Well, it's all the rage in Russia.
The app is called FindFace. It debuted in Russia in February, and since then has been downloaded more 500,000 times and has used to identify more than 3 million random strangers at the grocery store or on the bus or, well, wherever. It's pretty simple to use: take a photo of someone, put it in the app, and in less than a second FindFace compares their mug to around a billion photographs from the Russian social networking site Vkontakte. It will give you the most likely match in your area, in addition to 10 other possible matches. Even if your photo isn't great, FindFace's algorithm is alarmingly accurate; its creators at NTech Lab just won the University of Washington's face recognition contest MegaFace with 73.3 percent accuracy in a search of 1 million faces.
FindFace's creators insist it can help with your dating life.
"If you see someone you like, you can photograph them, find their identity, and then send them a friend request," algorithm creator Alexander Kabakov recently told The Guardian. "It also looks for similar people. So you could just upload a photo of a movie star you like, or your ex, and then find 10 girls who look similar to her and send them messages."
Law enforcement is also very interested in the app, although not because it's already been used to stalk and harass porn actors, or because Yegor Tsvetkov, a St. Petersburg-based photographer has used FindFace on strangers he photographed on the subway in his new project, "YOUR FACE IS BIG DATA." No, the police are using FindFace to identify criminals.
"It's nuts: there were cases that had seen no movement for years, and now they are being solved," says Kabakov.
But before you start getting all soft on FindFace, its other big potential application is in retail advertising. Say you're in a store and a camera spots you looking at a sweet speaker system — this technology could be used to identify you and start sending you personalized ads for that particular product.
So far, FindFace is only compatible with Vkontakte — a lot would have to change about the way Facebook is able to access stored photos and scan faces before it could sync up with FindFace. But consider this a shot over the wall. And maybe a good excuse to buy another balaclava.