Facial recognition technology is often seen by naysayers to be a threat to our private life. But it can also be a positive tool in helping us find missing persons.

Against human trafficking

Speaking on The Next Web, tech chronicler Rachel Kaser tells us that this technology, which uses machine learning to identify similarities between faces on different pictures in order to find someone, could be used to fight human trafficking for example.

Since 2012, the Marinus Analytics startup in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been using AI and Big Data exploration “to help law enforcement catch sex traffickers and rescue victims.” While she was studying in 2011 at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, Marinus Analytics founder Emily Kennedy created a program called ‘Traffic Jam’ whose purpose is to identify people that are victims of forced prostitution. To work, her program extracts data in a continuous and real-time manner from “publicly accessible” websites like those that provide a contact with “escort girls”. It then creates a database from pictures, phone numbers and geo-tracking.

Against women trafficking

The entrepreneur who won “Mother of Invention” price from the 2018 “Women in the World” show that took place in Toyota, Los Angeles confirms “finding crucial proof that could not be found otherwise” thanks to her system, which also spares detectives “from researching for hundreds of hours and instead sends them to precise targets”. In TV shows the U.S. police calls on to profilers or mediums for help, but in the real world it seems that AI is a much stronger ally.

Traffic Jam works in a way that would be impossible for humans to follow: it’s an extremely slow and manual process that in any case would not show you all the escort girl ads…because humans do not see everything and because sex traffickers delete old ads so that they don’t show up on Google and cannot be found anywhere else.”, explains Emily Kennedy. Marinus Analytics finally developed a new feature to its program. Called “Facesearch”, it allows users to peel through a vast amount of online pictures to find victims of human trafficking by using facial recognition. Police can thus compare photos of a missing person with those on Traffic Jam in order to find them in potential online “pubs”.

According to The Next Web and Huffington Post, Amazon is also presenting Rekognition, its own facial recognition system, to the American police. 30 ONG recently wrote to the online shopping giant and asked it to stop this “dangerous” collaboration, as it gives law-enforcement “enormous powers of surveillance”. But in fact, Rekognition is potentially able to find human trafficking victims on the Web just as well as Traffic Jam.

Using facial recognition to find lost children

Facial recognition technology is also able to find missing children. In India, the disappearance of children is a real scourge, as highlighted in Garth Davis’ new movie Lion. To improve this, New Dehli’s police has been testing a new application that uses facial recognition since April 2018 which allowed them to find 2930 children in only four days.

To do this, detectives cross-match the photos stored in the database of the 240,000 children missing in India with “Trackchild” (pictures of children taken in help centers) and the pictures taken by parents. Indian law enforcement uses a facial recognition program made by Vision Box, a “digital identity solutions” company based in Lisbon, Portugal. Long story short, this is the same program that up to now was essentially used for biometric checks at airport borders. The Portuguese company have apparently allowed Indian police to use their program for free as long as it is only to find missing children.  

Invisible Friends

Facebook’s facial recognition, on other side, has been given a new use by an Australian association to find missing persons.

Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN) has launched their “Invisible Friends” campaign in May 2018. It consists of asking people to add missing persons as friends on their Facebook account, in the hopes that the facial recognition tool will identify them in photos. This is the 2018 high-tech missing persons poster — we’re simply taking advantage of technology that is now freely available — and it’s never been easier for people to get involved,” Loren O’Keeffe, MPAN founder and CEO, explained on Mashable.