Privacy Experts Are Worried— AI Can Find You in Photographs Now

  • AI technology is becoming more powerful.
  • Three Stanford students created a geolocating program.
  • The new program beat a geolocating expert.
  • An expert worries it could expose information meant to stay private.

( – Artificial intelligence (AI) has taken over as the next big thing in the technology industry. Companies and other institutions are pouring money into it and trying to make it better. Three graduate students at Stanford have built software that can pinpoint where a photo was taken.

That’s the Spot

Silas Alberti, Michal Skreta, and Lukas Haas took “Computer Science 330, Deep Multi-task and Meta Learning” at Standford. They had to come up with a project while they were in class and thought about a common hobby they shared. They all played GeoGuessr, a Swedish game that challenges people to geolocate photos.

Skreta explained that people are placed somewhere in the world on Google Street View when they enter the game. They’re “supposed to place a pin on the map, that is [their] best guess of the location.”

The three friends decided they would try to build a player that could geolocate better than humans can. They started their program, Predicting Image Geolocations (PIGEON), with an image-analyzing system called CLIP. That is a program built by OpenAI that learns about images by reading text about them.

The students used Google Street View images to train their AI system. They created a database of approximately 500,000 images. They also added a tool that helped the system classify the images by their global position. PIGEON has been able to pick the correct country where a photo was taken 95% of the time, and most of the time, it chooses a location within 25 miles of where the photo was taken.

According to the students, their program is successful because it’s able to pick up a lot of details that humans miss. For example, it picks up differences in weather, soil, and other elements.

After creating the program, the students put it to the test against Trevor Rainbolt, a geoguessing expert. When he went up against the program he lost multiple rounds. PIGEON was the first AI program to beat Rainbolt.

Experts Express Concerns

Jay Stanley, a senior analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that the program is great because it will be able to help people. For instance, they could identify where a photo was taken. However, it could also expose information that people want to keep private. His concern seems warranted, given how accurate the program is. It could, for example, expose the location of someone who is hiding from an abusive ex-significant other.

Stanley said that PIGEON shows how powerful AI can be. And the success of the student project makes one “wonder what could be done, by, for example, Google.”

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