Washington, DC — On Wednesday, The Firearm Blog posted a story that will likely blow most gun owners away.
Earlier in the day, Jalopnik, a website for selling cars and car parts posted an article about cars and license plate numbers.
Not exactly breaking gun news.
But Jalopnik’s article claimed that if you put in a license plate number into google, it would pull up any images stored of that car or it’s license plate.
Google was essentially using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on license plates in Google Images.
This made the license plates (and thus the cars) searchable by Google query.
Curious, The Firearm Blog wondered if Google was also using that Optical Character Recognition on the serial numbers of guns.
And it turns out, they are.
That’s right. Every gun picture uploaded to Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter is being automatically scanned using OCR and its serial number is now stored.
To prove that this data mining was happening, The Firearm Blog used examples of gun pictuers they had posted to their blogs—and thus of which they had the serial numbers. They typed in the serial numbers and nothing else (no gun make or model, etc) and immediately Google showed them their own blog post with that exact gun in it.
Google had read the practically microscopic serial number from off the gun in their blog post and had used that data mining to add the serial number to their database.
Google is archiving these serial numbers and making a collection of every gun that’s ever been uploaded to the internet. Granted, not every picture of every gun will be readable by their software, but the fact remains that they likely have pictures of millions and millions of American guns stored with their serial numbers in this searchable database.
As you can see from the results below, firearm serial numbers are in fact part of this apparent large-scale data mining operation by companies like Google and Facebook.
Tests were also run on silencer serial numbers, and google pulled up the correct image of those, as well. If you put the serial number in quotes in your search, Google is forced to look only for that string of numbers. And it pulled the silencer image up in seconds.
This is basically a ghost registry.
While the image of your gun doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal, don’t forget that all pictures taken by digital devices are stored with their meta data.
This meta data identifies what device it was taken on, the date the photo was taken, and the owner of the picture.
The context of where the image was found can also give more information—think of whose Facebook or Google account uploaded it.
For further illustration, if you have somebody who is angry at you, they could call the cops or your insurance company and say that they had a gun stolen and give them this Google-sourced serial number.
It’s generally thought that the person who knows that serial number is likely to be the real owner, after all.
This creates a paperwork headache that could take a while to untangle, to say the least. If you go to sell your gun, it could show up on a list of stolen guns, for example. Or if a cop looks up your gun at a traffic stop and it comes up as reported stolen, you’re going to have a very bad day.
Or people making a ghost guns could grab your serial number and put it on their ghost gun.
Essentially, there are plenty of bad uses for this database already, but the potential uses that we don’t even know yet are even more worrisome.
If you’re the kind of person who puts fake info on a grocer store membership card, then you might want to seriously consider blacking out your serial numbers before posting pictures of your guns in any online format, or even reconsider posting them at all.