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Animals on camera

Facial recognition systems aren’t just for humans—animals are getting in on the action too

New reports emerge weekly about controversial uses of facial recognition technology by schools, commercial establishments, sports arenas, and law enforcement. But less known and perhaps less contentious applications of the technology are occurring in the animal kingdom.

Scientists, researchers, and farmers are using facial recognition to identify, track, feed, locate, and even diagnose disease in wild and domesticated animals. The menagerie includes pigs, cows, bears, and fish.

Like humans, animals have individually unique characteristics. A computer program can map the features of a particular animal and then later identify or track it.

The Guardian recently reported on farmers in Guangxi, China, who use facial recognition on large farms to alert them of animals sick or in distress. The software identifies the differences between individual pigs by “analyzing their snouts, ears, and eyes.” With facial recognition providing the ability to “continuously monitor, identify, and even feed their herds,” farmers have seen decreases in costs and breeding times. With facial recognition and surveillance cameras connected to a feeding system, pigs can have an individualized feeding plan that decreases the amount of wasted food.

Cargill, the Minneapolis-based, global food company, has invested in a machine-learning Irish startup, Cainthus, to offer facial recognition to dairy farmers: The software identifies individual cows and tracks their feeding habits, delivering data to help farmers make better decisions that affect milk production, reproduction, and animal health.

Another application of facial recognition in the food supply chain deals with disease in the salmon population. Bloomberg Businessweek in 2018 described how a Norwegian fish-farming company, Cermaq Group AS, planned to use BioSort’s facial recognition software to scan fish for lice or skin ulcers. Fish with abnormalities would be quarantined and treated, protecting the health of the remaining fish. A sea lice epidemic in salmon farms can cost the industry more than $1 billion in a year. According to BioSort CEO Geir Stang Hauge, early disease detection could reduce salmon mortality by 50 percent to 75 percent—a potential game changer for countries like Chile and Norway.

Moving from farms to wilderness: Distinguishing one grizzly from another barely matters to the average camper, but to University of Victoria bear biologist Melanie Clapham, identifying and tracking individual bears over the course of many years is important to her research and to the conservation of the species. In 2017 Clapham collaborated with software developers Ed Miller and Mary Nguyen to develop BearID, a facial recognition program used to catalog and track grizzlies in Canada and Alaska. In a paper published last November, the researchers noted that BearID, using a database of 4,674 bear images, correctly identified an individual bear 84 percent of the time.

Finally, closer to home, the pet facial recognition app Finding Rover helps reunite Fido and Fluffy with their owners. Multiple animal shelters across the United States, along with pet owners, upload pictures to the app’s database. ABC’s Good Morning America reported that an owner can upload a photo of a lost pet to the app and it “will scan a database of more than a million rescued or found animals that could be a match.” The app’s founder, John Polimeno, told the show that Finding Rover has helped reunite over 15,000 pets with their owners.

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Jaap Arriens/Sipa USA/AP

(Jaap Arriens/Sipa USA/AP)


Canceled and deplatformed

Will online conservative voices be silenced after right-wing groups stormed Capitol Hill?

After a Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., left five people dead, major technology companies moved swiftly to cut connections with right-wing extremist groups and anyone deemed associated with them. Within days, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google had suspended accounts linked to former President Donald Trump and the right-leaning social network Parler.

The post-riot purge raised the question: Would conservative voices be broadly silenced online? The answer depends on where you look.

In Parler’s case, just keeping its website online has been a challenge. After Amazon’s web hosting platform booted Parler from its servers, the Twitter-like social media network turned to one of the few companies willing to help—Epik, a small U.S.-based web host and registrar. Epik also happens to serve other right-wing clients, including news outlet One America News, fringe video site BitChute, and social media platform Gab. 

Less than a week after getting kicked off-line, Parler brought back its website with help from Epik. But then the condemnations rolled in—against Epik. 

Gizmodo dismissed Epik as a ‘harbor for deplatformed cesspools.’

Tech site Gizmodo dismissed Epik as a “harbor for deplatformed cesspools,” and the Telegraph labeled it “the registrar keeping extremists online.” After PayPal dropped Epik last October, Epik senior VP of communications Robert Davis said industry insiders banned his company from attending this year’s annual industry trade show. 

Website registrars perform a boring but important job: They sell domain names (for example, to anyone wanting a live website and officially register the domains to ICANN, the world’s internet directory of web addresses.

“All we are is a domain registrar,” Davis said. “We’re just here so you can pay $10 and get ‘’ Epik hasn’t given up its policy on who it does business with. I have shut down more Nazis than any other web host out there.”

Davis admits Epik works with organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated hate groups. I confirmed Epik is the registrar for at least two: Euro Folk Radio and American Renaissance. But I also found that several more SPLC-designated hate groups have websites registered with Epik’s larger competitors, including GoDaddy, Namecheap, and Tucows. That suggests tech companies have deplatformed groups on a case-by-case basis, rather than equally across the board.

The SPLC’s hate group list includes not just “Western chauvinist” groups such as Proud Boys but also Christian groups. (The latter often make the list because of their disapproval of homosexual relationships.)

Online donation platforms banned some groups and permitted others. PayPal, for example, recently ended its relationship with GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site that the Proud Boys and Kenosha, Wis., shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse have used. But PayPal still collects donations for several Christian groups SPLC has labeled anti-LGBT hate groups, including the Pacific Justice Institute, the Pray in Jesus Name Project, the Center for Family and Human Rights, and the Public Advocate of the United States. 

Public Advocate, a Virginia-based group that promotes traditional family values and produces what President Eugene Delgaudio calls “low-budget political theater,” has called President Joe Biden’s election victory fraudulent. The group was suspended from Twitter for two months and forced to take down YouTube videos for its election claims. Delgaudio says he’s prepared to go elsewhere, if necessary, whether for social media, hosting, or fundraising services. 

“We know there’s censorship and we’re experiencing this censorship,” he said.

That may explain why his group maintains accounts on numerous social media platforms. At the bottom of Public Advocate’s website are 16 different social network icons—from right-wing-friendly platforms such as Telegram, BitChute, Rumble, Gab, and Parler, to more mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The group takes donations from PayPal and fundraising platform Piryx, keeps backups of videos, and relies on old-fashioned forms of crowdsourcing like direct mail and in-person events.

Delgaudio says he recognizes it may only be a matter of time before tech companies threaten to deplatform him again.

—WORLD has updated this story to clarify how the extremist group Proud Boys describes itself.

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Julia de Boer

St. Therese Catholic Academy (Julia de Boer)


Eyes on education

Facial recognition technology offers potential safety benefits, but most U.S. schools remain wary

Matthew DeBoer never intended to be a spokesperson for facial recognition. Back in 2018, the principal of St. Therese Catholic Academy, a K-8 school in Seattle, was looking to upgrade the academy’s aging security system when he heard about an offer from tech firm RealNetworks to pilot test its facial recognition technology.

With support from parents and staff, DeBoer signed up and installed facial recognition by the school’s external doors.

Now, to get inside St. Therese, parents and staff stare at an external camera and smile. If the system recognizes the person’s face, the front doors automatically open. DeBoer says the system has helped staffers match faces with names and expedited routine visits from parents and delivery workers.

“I wasn’t sold on it right away,” he said. “But when I thought it through, this technology reminded me of my mantra, ‘How can we make the world smaller?’”

With a handful of exceptions, though, U.S. schools are still not sold on facial recognition. 

An October 2019 Wired magazine investigation found that of the more than 13,000 public school districts in the United States, only eight had installed facial recognition systems in the previous year. 

Of those, at least one has walked back its policy. The Lockport school district in New York state was among the first in the country to adopt facial recognition in all its K-12 buildings. But after the New York Legislature issued a statewide moratorium on facial recognition and other forms of biometrics in schools until 2022, Lockport had to shut down its system. 

Some U.S. cities aren’t sold on it either. Portland, San Francisco, and a few other smaller cities in California and Massachusetts now prohibit facial recognition in public and local government spaces. While schools are not specifically mentioned, the bans have made introducing facial recognition there a nonstarter. 

Proponents of facial recognition say it’s a powerful crime deterrent that could have prevented school shootings like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 that left 17 people dead. Since the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was an expelled former student, some say school administrators could have added him to a facial recognition system, which would have denied him entrance to the school.

But Carl Chinn, an expert on church security, says facial recognition won’t identify suspicious behavior, the chief factor a security team should look for when protecting children. 

I wasn’t sold on it right away. But when I thought it through, this technology reminded me of my mantra, ‘How can we make the world smaller?’

“I’m in favor of watching for dangerous activities,” he said. “Facial recognition ain’t going to help you [with that].”

Much of the argument against facial recognition in school concerns student privacy, consent, and racial bias. One parent from the Lockport district told The New York Times he feared the system would have “turned our kids into lab rats in a high-tech experiment in privacy invasion.”

Others say facial recognition is too inaccurate to be useful and could lead to misidentification and wrongful disciplinary action against people of color. A National Institute of Standards and Technology study found that facial recognition systems misidentified minorities up to 100 times more often than white men.

Back in Seattle, DeBoer says that although 86 percent of St. Therese Catholic Academy students identify as persons of color, he’s found the rate of misidentification consistent across all skin colors. His school resolves privacy issues by restricting the systems to external entrances, keeping cameras out of classrooms, and never using facial recognition on students. 

The school also made the system voluntary, so skeptical parents can still check in the old-fashioned way—by walking into the main office.

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