But PimEyes does little to enforce this goal, beyond a box that a searcher must click asserting that the face being uploaded is his or her own. Helen Nissenbaum, a Cornell University professor who studies privacy, called this “absurd,” unless the site had a searcher provide government identification, as Ms. Scarlett had to when she opted out.
“If it’s a useful thing to do, to see where our own faces are, we have to imagine that a company offering only that service is going to be transparent and audited,” Ms. Nissenbaum said.
PimEyes does no such audits, though Mr. Gobronidze said the site would bar a user with search activity “beyond anything logical,” describing one with more than 1,000 searches in a day as an example. He is relying on users to do what’s right and mentioned that anyone who searched someone else’s face without permission would be breaking European privacy law.
“It should be the responsibility of the person using it,” he said. “We’re just a tool provider.”
Ms. Scarlett said she had never thought she would talk publicly about what happened to her when she was 19, but felt she had to after she realized that the images were out there.
“It would have been used against me,” she said. “I’m glad I’m the person who found them, but to me, that’s more about luck than PimEyes working as intended. It shouldn’t exist at all.”
Exceptions to the rule
Despite saying PimEyes should be used only for self-searches, Mr. Gobronidze is open to other uses as long as they are “ethical.” He said he approved of investigative journalists and the role PimEyes played in identifying Americans who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The Times allows its journalists to use face recognition search engines for reporting but has internal rules about the practice. “Each request to use a facial recognition tool for reporting purposes requires prior review and approval by a senior member of the masthead and our legal department to ensure the usage adheres to our standards and applicable law,” said a Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha.