Google App Would Identify Faces to Access Their Personal Info

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Google crawls trillions of sites, many of which have publicly available personal photos on them (think Facebook and Flickr) that might be tagged and make it oh-so-easy if face-enabled searches were to become a reality. Imagine for a moment that you are out and about when someone who you don’t even know happens to snap your picture which they could later use to find out where you lived, what you do for living, what your e-mail address is – anything that you’ve ever put in a profile or made publicly available online on a social networking site. It could be a stalker’s dream come true. Creepy huh?

Google announced developing a smartphone app designed to identify faces in photos and then identify personal information linked to the person in the photo. April Fool? Not even close!

Since Google is on ‘privacy probation,’ it must have decided now was a fine time to officially declare Google is going to launch a mobile app that will use facial recognition technology to use face search. Okay that’s a bit mean-spirited, so let’s go for precise quotes. Google engineering director for image-recognition development, Hartmut Neven, chose to announce to CNN, “Google plans to introduce a mobile application that would allow users to snap pictures of people’s faces in order to access their personal information.” The story highlights include, “Identifying faces using pages publicly available on the internet is technically feasible.” Feasible as in Google could if it wanted to use the technology.

This shouldn’t shock us all the way down to privacy toes since, ReadWriteWeb reported that at the 2010 Techonomy conference in August, then CEO of Google Eric Schmidt said, ” If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go. Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You’ve got Facebook photos! People will find it’s very useful to have devices that remember what you want to do, because you forgot…But society isn’t ready for questions that will be raised as result of user-generated content.”

Interestingly enough, slightly over a month ago, when sister site Computerworld reported on Google patents filed about face recognition for social network photos, Google spokesperson Brian Richardson was upset and wanted the title changed so it didn’t say Google planned “to use” its image recognition technology for face-enabled searches on social networking sites. But now Google is cautiously going there – just be careful not to imply Google intends to search various social networks to match a face . . . even if it has filed the patents and has the technological capabilities to do such a thing.

As Buzzblog reported, regarding Google Buzz, the FTC put Google on 20 years of ‘privacy probation.’ Google had problems in respecting users’ privacy in 2010 when it admitted Buzz errors and, later that year, when Google also admitted Street View privacy errors. Internet Evolution listed out Google’s Lawsuits. So while announcing a Google app that would identify people’s faces, it disclosed that “in order to be identified by the software, people would have to check a box agreeing to give Google permission to access their pictures and profile information.” Google described the “app concept as ‘conservative’ in relation to privacy.”

Needing to opt in as opposed check a box to opt out is a step in the right direction for “acceptable privacy models,” but like everything else, it will be used for good and evil. I can almost hear a security researcher’s mind twirling to come up with a proof-of-concept hack to get the pictures no matter what the user checked. Unfortunately the idea of trawling public sites for photos which could be used for face-enabled searches to glean all that person’s info just sets my privacy hackles on end.

To avoid any “upset” Google spokesperson coming after this blog, here’s clarification. Businesses do file many patents they don’t later use or turn into a product, just to “own” it and sue anyone who infringes upon their rights. What Nevens described were “hypothetical uses” of Google technology – at least according to a Popular Science article that a Google spokesman called “extremely speculative.”

Despite the quotes by Schmidt about the future of technology, and the patents which lay out the technological means to do it, please don’t imply Google intends “to use” face-enabled searches. At least, not unless you want bruises as if you’d been thrown under the wheels of a Google Street View car. Could this app help apprehend criminals? Perhaps. Could it let creepy people find out all about you? Perhaps. Just cause it’s all out there on the Net doesn’t mean you intended for an app to make it easy to connect the dots by someone capturing your face with a picture snapped from their smartphone.

For more of what Google could do in regards to using facial recognition and social networking combined to give visual search results, see the Computerworld article or Google patents, Facial Recognition With Social Network Aiding and User Interface for Presenting Search Results for Multiple Regions of a Visual Query.

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