Google AI will alert you when someone is sneaking glances at your smartphone

Google researchers are developing an 'Electronic Screen Protector' that will notify smartphone users when someone is looking over their shoulder.

Video: Forecasting the future of the smartphone

A new mobile security feature uses artificial intelligence (AI) to determine if someone is spying on your smartphone over your shoulder.

This "Electronic Screen Protector" was developed by Google researchers Hee Jung Ryu and Florian Schroff, and demonstrated in a recent YouTube video. The tool could help professionals protect sensitive data on their smartphone screens from the staring eyes of strangers in crowded places.

Using a phone's front-facing camera, the system will detect if a second set of eyes begins snooping on your screen, and will then alert the user of their presence, the video demonstrated. According to a brief description posted by the researchers, the runtime for the gaze detection is 2ms.

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In one example shown in the video, a researcher begins composing a text message. Every time a stranger's gaze is detected, the phone seems to switch to the front camera, highlighting the face of the stranger with a warning: "STRANGER is LOOKING ALERT!" A giant rainbow also points to the stranger's face.

For business executives and professionals that often find themselves working in public, the feature could serve as a useful tool to protect sensitive company data from corporate spies or potential rivals. Especially if the final functionality appears the same as the test case, automatically switching out of the app when another person's gaze is detected.

Facial recognition and detection have emerged as major use cases for AI. As noted by ZDNet's Liam Tung, it appears that the researchers are leaning on a Google-developed neural network called FaceNet, along with an additional neural network called GazeNet to power the Electronic Screen Protector.

In addition to very quickly detecting gaze, the system can also perform facial recognition on the snooper in 47ms, the description noted. To recognize a face in each frame, however, will take roughly 115ms.

"Because of the quick, robust, and accurate gaze detection mobile model we can now easily identify the face identity and gaze simultaneously in real time," the researchers wrote in the description. "Hence, the application, an electronic screen protector, can enable its enrolled users to continue reading private and confidential contents on your mobile device, while protecting their privacy from onlookers in a crowded space such as the subway or an elevator."

The researchers will be presenting their work at the 2017 NIPS Conference in Long Beach, CA in December. Plans for general availability have not been announced.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A new privacy feature from Google researchers uses AI to determine if a stranger is sneaking glances at your phone, alerting the user of their presence.
  2. The feature uses neural networks to perform gaze recognition in 2ms, and can perform facial recognition of the snooper in 47ms.
  3. The "Electronic Screen Protector" could help professionals and business users maintain privacy when working in crowded public spaces.

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Image: Google