A screengrab from the ICRC Trace the Face initiative, which helps to reunite lost family members.

GENEVA — In the summer of 2015, Setarah, a 17-year-old from Afghanistan, was with her parents and younger brother on the Turkish coast. Tired and frightened, they were among an influx of almost a million people from countries struggling with conflict or poverty who would reach European shores that year. In the middle of the night, the family was roused and sent scrambling toward rubber dinghies for the crossing to Greece. But in the confusion, they became separated.

“It was a terrifying night,” Setarah later told a Red Cross official. “I suddenly discovered that the rest of my family had been placed in some of the other boats.”

Unable to find her family in Greece, Setarah pushed on and ended up in Denmark.

A year and a half later, she learned of an online system the International Committee of the Red Cross had set up to help reunite “family members separated by conflicts, disasters or migration.” The system, Trace the Face, posts a photo of a person looking for lost relatives in Europe. Setarah agreed to have her photo put online, and soon got a phone call while she was at school.

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“Someone from the Red Cross Tracing Service called me and said that they had had a reaction from a person in Germany who said he was my father. At first, I didn’t really believe it. But then I spoke with him on the phone, and it was like a gift from God.”

Reuniting separated family members has been a core mission of the Red Cross movement since its founding over 150 years ago.

Now, it wants to introduce facial recognition to speed up the slow process of searching through photos to find missing relatives. If the new system proves successful, officials say that it could help reunite many more fractured families.

ICRC has been developing the new system for over a year and hopes to launch it around June. The science of computer-based facial recognition, where systems create and compare digital maps of faces, is by now well established. If you upload a photo on Facebook and tag it with somebody’s name, for example, Facebook will align the face and name, and recognize the person in other photos.

However, using an existing system such as Facebook’s to find photo matches among thousands of refugees and migrants looking for lost family members may not be the best approach.

For a start, “when you take an off-the-shelf product, it may not have been created with data sets without bias,” said Vincent Graf Narbel, ICT innovation officer at ICRC.

While most refugees and migrants destined for Europe are from the Middle East and Africa, commercial facial recognition systems may have been developed using mostly European faces.

On top of that, ICRC needs to make sure the system is capable of working with old photos on creased paper, as well as new digital images.

Finally, protecting the privacy and safety of refugees and migrants is paramount, and the system must provide maximum data protection.

Tracing missing people, an evolution

For more than 150 years, the work of reuniting families has rested mainly on text files about a person, each containing the name and identifying information. But the last few years have seen a shift from text to photos, prompted by large numbers of arrivals that have presented special challenges, and the growth of computer technology that has offered new solutions.

The journey to Europe is typically chaotic and dangerous. Some refugees and migrants have been trapped as slaves in Libya and thousands more have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those who reach Europe have been scattered across the continent.

The problem with traditional tracing methods is that they are based on searching for the names of missing people. But the influx to Europe has been made up of people from many countries with dozens of languages written in several different alphabets. A person’s name, especially when transcribed into another alphabet, may be spelled in various ways on different documents.

More to the point, searching by name is inherently unreliable.

“You’ll find many people with the same name,” said Marc Studer, online platform manager at the ICRC Central Tracing Agency. “Faces are unique, so we decided to try something different.”

In 2013, ICRC united with national Red Cross societies of several European countries to create the Trace the Face tracking system based on photos, in which names are not even published.

At first, a poster with 16 new photos was printed every month and displayed in up to 500 refugee centers — Red Cross offices, and other places where refugees and migrants gather.

“But we quickly realized this was too limited, so we decided to put the photos up on a website,” said Studer.

Finding families

The way it works is that a person looking for a missing relative thought to be in Europe contacts their local Red Cross or Red Crescent to request help. An official meets with them to explain the program, and then posts a passport-sized photo of the person they just interviewed on the website. The goal is that the missing person will see their relative’s photo online and fill out an online request. The local Red Cross groups then cross-check the match and arrange for the two to communicate.

The largest number of requests come from Afghanistan, countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, and Iraq. Requests also come from refugees and migrants who have been separated from family members along the route to Europe, or who have been unable to contact their families back home. This can happen when family members who stay behind are forced to flee their homes due to fighting or natural disaster, making it impossible for a relative who left for Europe to find them.

Photos of the missing relatives themselves are not put online, however, to protect the privacy and safety of the person being sought. For example, that person may be at risk from the government they fled, or from human traffickers. In addition, strict European data protection regulations prohibit the publishing of a photo of an adult without their permission. Photos of minors below the age of 15 are also kept offline and can be seen only by Red Cross officials.

The Red Cross has been working to get the word out across Europe that refugees and migrants seeking to reconnect with their families should search the photos online. They can increase their chances if they have their own photo displayed publicly; or, if they want to protect their privacy, on an internal Red Cross database.

The website is currently available in seven languages — including Arabic, the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto, and Somali — but that number should double in the coming months. The public site can be filtered by gender, age, and country of origin, but nothing else. Names and other details, as well as contact information, are kept in back-office databases, for use by Red Cross officials alone.

Safety measures

As they develop the photo-based tracing system and work on adding facial recognition, ICRC officials are extremely cautious not to create any additional risk for the people they want to help.

“Our first principle,” said Studer, “is ‘do no harm.’”

To protect the identities of this vulnerable population, the entire nonpublic part of the system which links ICRC with National Red Cross and Crescent Societies is kept on a tightly controlled internal network. 

“Putting it on public cloud services would make this much simpler,” said ICRC’s Graf. But “we haven’t found a way to work with public cloud providers. Most are American [and] they have sometimes been forced to hand over data.”

The safeguarding of users’ identities is central to the system’s design. When a national society sends a photo to ICRC to check for a match, it is sent without a name, identified solely by a number meaningful only to the national society that sent it.

Moreover, the system is decentralized, and no Red Cross office has access to all of it.

“A lot of facial recognition is used today for surveillance, especially by authorities,” said Graf, and the system is designed to make it very difficult for nonauthorized users to get hold of information.

For example, should police pressure a national Red Cross society to search for a migrant through Trace the Face, the most that could be learned is which other national society had registered the person being sought.

“All these measures are taken for security, but also so that people will have confidence,” said Studer. “Otherwise they won’t use the service.”

As the family tracing system moves rapidly from paper posters to computer-based facial recognition, the Red Cross is grappling with concerns faced by humanitarian actors around the world. While the convergence of data and technology can expand the reach and effectiveness of humanitarian action, this also comes with risks.

Julia Steets, director of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, said humanitarian actors should always consider “proportionality” before adopting new technologies; in other words, how the potential benefits compare to the risks.

Hacking is a constant danger, she said, and it is important that anyone who uses the Red Cross family tracing system is fully informed of the risks. But the system has been designed so that anyone who wanted to steal information goes through a lot of trouble for limited payoff, she added.

“This program has potentially gigantic benefits,” said Steets, “versus relatively small risk.”

While no database containing sensitive personal data can be considered immune to hacking, the Red Cross considers the dangers seriously said Patrick Meier, co-founder and executive director of WeRobotics, which promotes the development of high-tech tools for humanitarian uses.

“The Red Cross has been a pioneer in data protocols for decades,” he said.

Next steps

Interest in Trace the Face has been growing steadily. There are currently publicly viewable photos of more than 4,400 people, about 40 percent of which were added in 2017. Photos of a further 900 people ­— half of them children below 15 — are kept offline.

Each match “is always a huge relief for a family,” said Lucile Marbeau, ICRC spokesperson for Trace the Face. Since the beginning of the year, an average of one or two matches have been made each week — not a large number, but double the number of just one year ago.

ICRC is working to improve the reliability of its facial recognition system by “training” it with photos of non-Europeans, in collaboration with external experts and researchers. Officials are hopeful that when the system is launched in a few months’ time, it will increase the number of matches.

“Each night, the script will take the new photos that came in that day and compare them to all other photos [in the system]” much faster and more thoroughly than humans could, said Studer.

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Designed to disregard possible changes in appearance due to eyeglasses or facial hair, the system should be able to find matches between an old photo of a migrant provided by their family, and a current photo of the migrant provided themselves; or between a photo of a migrant and that of a possible blood relative, especially a sibling, parent, or child.

This second feature represents a striking innovation that could substantially increase the chances of reuniting separated families, officials said. The idea came out of two “hack-fests”: Intensive five-day gatherings in Geneva last year that included small groups of IT engineers from ICRC and Microsoft, which provided support for free.

“That was an ‘ah-hah’ moment, an epiphany,” said Jason Fox, head of the Microsoft team, which included himself and two other engineers.

“The possibility of matching relatives hadn’t really occurred to us before.”

Another innovation is to generate a number of possible matches, each with a score from high to low probability. This differs from how facial recognition is more commonly designed — to give either a positive or negative response when asked if two photos match — and should increase the chances of finding a missing person.

The initial period after the system is launched will be used to test its real-world value and make possible tweaks to improve its effectiveness, officials said. The hope is that, once it has proved its worth, the system will be available for use in future emergencies, inside or outside Europe.

About the author

  • Burton Bollag

    Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.