Hany Farid is a party host’s dream guest. He can engage in substantive conversation with the introverted Egyptologist, the basement-dwelling technophile, the neighborhood neurosurgeon – even the insufferable armchair geophysicist and eccentric ecologist.
Farid’s interests and impact are exceptionally broad. But where he goes deep is in his work to combat the digital proliferation of extremist propaganda and child pornography. Deemed the “father of digital forensics,” Farid collaborates in this work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; the Counter Extremism Project; the White House; the United Nations, and such tech giants as Microsoft, Facebook and Google.
Recently, Farid was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He also published his first book, Photo Forensics, which is likely to become the bible of the field he pioneered at his day job as Dartmouth College’s Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of Computer Science.
The secret to Farid’s broad, cross-disciplinary success, it seems, is the synergy between his persistent curiosity and his eclectic intellectual skill set. Both are attributable, in part, to his time at UAlbany.
“It’s about taking a toolset built to do X and using it to do Y,” said Peter S. Shenkin, Farid’s longtime mentor. “Hany can look at a problem and say, ‘Wait a minute; I have the tools to do this.’”
Farid insists there was nothing strategic about his eclectic training – computer science, applied mathematics, electrical engineering, and brain and cognitive science – or the tools with which it has equipped him. “It was just, ‘This seems cool,’” he said. “Science has become so ‘siloed’ over the years; we’re all so highly specialized. But I’ve always liked to live at the intersection of fields. That’s where the action is. I like thinking about problems.”
In 2007, Farid began thinking about the problem of the digital proliferation of child pornography. Working with an engineer from Microsoft, he developed technology, called PhotoDNA, able to extract a “signature” from an image. A signature, also called a “hash,” is a string of numbers embodying the characteristics of a digital image. The signature is distinct to a specific image and stable over the lifetime of the image, even as it’s modified, allowing for elimination of the image in all its forms, and thus preventing redistribution and revictimization.
Farid applied his expanded toolset to an equally ugly and technically similar problem. Believing that a parallel approach could cripple online extremism, he developed a database of known content to extract signatures and eliminate content.
Though the game is essentially the same, the engineering challenges with extremist propaganda are greater than with child pornography, insofar as the former often includes audio and video content. Over the past year, Farid and his team have developed the next generation of signature technology: the robust hashing algorithm, capable of extracting signatures from video and audio.
“For years, we grappled with how to win the defining challenge of this generation – against violent extremists,” said Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “As social-media companies and government programs floundered, Hany’s vision guided us toward a solution.”
Google, Facebook and Twitter, among other social-media companies, have deployed Farid’s hashing technologies, resulting in the elimination of copious content.
Farid was born to Egyptian parents in Germany but spent most of his childhood in Rochester, N.Y., where he was, admittedly, a mediocre student. Following a brief and “boring” stint as a programmer, the University of Rochester graduate enrolled in the computer-science program at UAlbany. Jacquelyn Fetrow, then an assistant professor of biology, recognized that Shenkin – at the time a Barnard College chemistry professor working with the University through a consortium – could discuss computer science and computation with Farid, so she introduced the two. “Jackie was good at identifying good people and connecting them,” said Shenkin, who went on to serve as the main adviser for Farid’s thesis on computational biology.
Shenkin remembers Farid as “incredibly energetic and hard working. We’d write, run and debug programs until 2 or 3 in the morning, and start again at 8 a.m. with bagels. We worked shoulder to shoulder. It was a joyful working relationship.”
It was in the lab at UAlbany that Farid caught the research bug, awakening a curiosity he continues to pursue into uncharted territory. Shenkin, who remains a pivotal influence in Farid’s life, recalled the “defining moment” when a program they’d designed spit out the correct answer, among nearly endless possibilities: “Hany thought it was the coolest thing.”
Inspired, Farid went on to earn a doctorate in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania and complete a post-doctoral fellowship in brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later relocated to Hanover, N.H., to teach at Dartmouth.
Working on issues and projects he’s excited about is “an incredible luxury,” said Farid. “Part of it is hard work, part of it is genetics, and part of it is I work with amazing people. But, honestly, a lot of it is luck. I think it’s important to be honest about successes in life. Every day, I just feel lucky.”