Facebook can identify you even if it can’t see your face – #WTFWednesday

Privacy news
2 mins
A crowd of people going about their business. They are blissfully unaware that Facebook is watching. Run, people! Think of the children!

It’s creepy enough that Facebook can recognize your face in photos. Even if you didn’t upload it yourself, Facebook can spot you and let other people tag you in any picture uploaded to the site.

That’s typical of Facebook’s grabby attitude towards your privacy. But it’s nothing compared to the social media giant’s latest photo recognition technology—which can identify you even if your back is turned.

It’s called PIPER (or Pose Invariant PErson Recognition). And when Facebook launches it, it will be able to track your activity in thousands of photos. Even photos you didn’t know existed.

How is that even possible?

Tracking You With 83% Accuracy

Currently, photo recognition technology only uses your face to identify you. It measures around 250 unique things about your looks: the distance between your eyes and nose, the shape of your head, and so on.

But your face isn’t the only thing that’s unique to you.

Facebook’s PIPER system is “trained on the full body of the person.”  It can identify you by the way you stand, sit, or walk:

Examples are a hand next to a hip, or head-and-shoulders in a back-facing view, or legs of a person walking sideways… we accumulate the subtle discriminative information coming from each part into a robust pose-independent person recognition system.

With PIPER, Facebook could identify you by almost any part of your body. And when the company tested the system on 6,000 Flickr photos, it was 83% accurate in identifying people.

Identifying You Without Your Consent

There’s another scary difference between regular facial recognition and Facebook’s new PIPER system.

When a photo contains a frontal view of your face, there’s a good chance you deliberately posed for that picture. You agreed to be in it.

But there are thousands more photos of you online, many of which store time and location info. Think of all the strangers’ vacation photos, where you accidentally appear in the background. You’re also in thousands of security camera photos, where you were just walking down the street.

You didn’t give your consent to be in those images. But now PIPER can recognize and identify you in them. Without your consent.

So what if Facebook starts identifying everyone in its millions of photos? Then, the company will have a huge database of its users’ activity—all gathered without your permission.

We Live In A Surveillance Society

And it’s not just Facebook that could use this new technology to grab your personal information. Governments and corporations could also use it to create a mass surveillance society.

Xiaoou Tang, one of world’s leading experts in facial recognition, puts it like this:

The dream is for governments to be able to set up networked cameras in public locations, capable of constantly searching through people who are photographed.

A dream for governments, maybe.

But if you value your privacy, PIPER sounds more like the stuff of nightmares.

This is #WTFWednesday, our weekly look at the newest threats to your privacy. Know someone who’d say “WTF!” at Facebook’s new photo recognition system? Share this story.


ExpressVPN’s #WTFWednesday brings you weird, shocking, and creepy stories about data privacy—pulled straight from the news. Think your privacy is yours? Think again. You will feel uncomfortable. You will be outraged. You will think, “WTF?!”


Like this post? Hate it? Read more horror stories about the invasion of your privacy in our #WTFWednesday archive.

Johnny 5 is the founding editor of the blog and writes about pressing technology issues. From important cat privacy stories to governments and corporations that overstep their boundaries, Johnny covers it all.