A lot of people are rightly concerned about their privacy in the Information Age. But before we react to every new product and technology, we need to focus on the facts as well as potential abuses.
An example is the recent hoopla about Facebook's face-recognition software, which helps people identify pictures of their own friends (not strangers). When the service was introduced in the United States in December, there were relatively few complaints or blog posts about it. But that all changed this month after the service was rolled out in Europe, raising the ire not just of some bloggers but also privacy advocates and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.
While fears about Facebook's use of the technology are a bit over the top, people have the right to be concerned about the use of face recognition. Although the technology is less than perfect, it can already enable the identification individuals based on what they look like rather than what they tell us about themselves. It's not hard to imagine the day when you'll be able to snap a person's picture with your mobile phone and immediately know who they are, and where they live, work or go to school.
Potential Abuse by Big Business and Big Government
It's even easier to imagine how the technology can be abused by big business and big government. It's creepy enough that the clerk at Safeway knows my name when I enter the loyalty code they require to avoid overpaying for my groceries. I'm not sure I want a merchant identifying me the moment I walk in the door or, worse, when I walk passed the store.
And there is also the risk of government abuse of the technology. Law enforcement agencies are already starting to use face recognition to identify suspects, and are able to "check the identity of a person in the field," according to the November 2010 issue of Forensic Magazine. Several counties in Florida are now using a facial-recognition system to compare images of suspects against a "database of photos from other counties, the state prison system and federal Drug Enforcement Administration," according to the Sun Sentinel.
Google and Apple Too
At the recent All Things Digital Conference, Google Executive Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt said that his company "built that technology and we withheld it," adding that he was concerned that "the union of mobile tracking and face recognition" could be used "in a very bad way" including by an "evil dictator."
Yet, according to its own support site, Google's Picasa photo editing software has "face-matching technology" that lets you organize your photos according to the people in them. It is turned on by default, "so the first time you open Picasa, it will scan your photos for new faces." The technology is also in Apple's iPhoto. Fueling speculation that face recognition could come to the iPhone, Apple last year acquired Polar Rose, a Swedish company that specializes in face-recognition technology.
Without understanding how the system is actually being implemented, one could easily conjure up all sorts of creepy scenarios about Facebook's facial recognition. The prospect of someone snapping your picture with a cellphone and instantly comparing it to the billions of photos on Facebook is scary. I've already read stories speculating how stalkers and pedophiles could use it to identify and help track down potential victims. If that were possible, it would indeed be horrendous.
What Facebook Is and Isn't Doing
What Facebook is actually doing is allowing users to compare a newly uploaded picture against pictures of people with whom they are already friends. If there is a potential match, Facebook suggests who that person might be. It's up to the user to confirm the match and decide whether to tag the person.
"The tool does not identify people you don't know or even those that you aren't the closest to," a Facebook representative said in an email interview. She added, "we don't have the ability to 'search' for a face amongst the billions of faces in our system. The technology doesn't work like that. It can only pick one face out of a hundred."
Contrary to some reports, the software doesn't automatically tag individuals. That's still a manual process done by the user the same as it's always been. It also doesn't change the fact that users can untag themselves. Also, any privacy settings that a user sets when they upload a photo remain intact.
While the feature makes tagging easier, it doesn't make it any more or less of an invasion of privacy. Just as is now the case, there will be situations where people are unhappy about photos that other people have taken and tagged them in, which is why it's good that it's possible to untag yourself and to use Facebook's new social reporting tool to request that the person take down photos you don't like. As my ConnectSafely colleague Anne Collier blogged, dealing with these issues is "a continuous, learn-as-we-go collaboration for all of us."
Face recognition does nothing to bolster or refute the argument that Facebook should make tagging "opt-in" so that you have to pre-approve any photos where you are tagged. The fact that something is easier or more convenient doesn't make it any more or less evil.
Whether implemented by Facebook, Google, Apple or some startup that you never heard of, facial-recognition technology has arrived and will only get better and easier to use. The question isn't whether it should be used -- there is no way to stop it -- but how to make sure it's not abused. There might be a role for government to guarantee that companies (and governments too) don't abuse the technology. And there is definitely a role for all us of to remember that we live in a digital world where our ability to control what people know about us will forever remain a moving target.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Google, Facebook and other companies.