Wednesday, December 07, 2005

With facial recognition available to the masses, privacy through anonymity may go out the window

Sorting photos is a tedious task. Even more tedious is writing the names of everyone on the back of the print or tagging all of the digital pics so you won't forget who is who. Well, that tedium is now in the past thanks to a new service that brings advanced facial recognition to the masses! You can upload all your pics to Riya, tell them which person in grandma and all pics with grandma in 'em will be tagged. You can tag your sister, your friend and anyone else you like. And if there's a stranger in your photos who you don't know (but Riya does), your photo will be tagged with the stranger's name. What could be cooler than that?

Jennifer Granick over at Wired News (Face It: Privacy Is Endangered) isn't so impressed. Up to now, facial recognition has been only used by law enforcement and some big businesses with large security budgets. Riya brings it to everyone who wants to sign up.

As Granick writes:

Riya also relies on meta tags, but uses facial-recognition software to create them automatically. Subscribers upload photos, and then tell the Riya software who the person is. By repeatedly running the recognition algorithm against multiple photos of the same person, Riya software eventually learns to identify other images of the same face. Once trained, the software will automatically generate meta tags, and users can search their own photos and the photos of other subscribers.

The service currently only searches photos uploaded to its servers. The technology could, however, be deployed across the internet, allowing people to search the web, Flickr, Tribe and Friendster photo sets, regardless of whether the owner or the person photographed wants to be identified. That's where things get interesting.

Mothers could search and find pictures of their children at a party when they were supposed to be studying at a friend's house. Insurers could search and find a photo of a customer bungee-jumping, and raise the daredevil's premiums. I predict that the tool will be invaluable to former (and future) boyfriends and girlfriends checking up on lovers.

In the analog days, when you left your house, there was always a possibility that you might run into someone who would remember what you were doing, and tell anyone who cared enough to ask. In a digital world, you do not know if someone is taking your picture -- with a camera, a webcam or a cell phone -- and the image can be stored forever and searched by people you do not know, at any point in time, without your knowledge and at little or no cost to the searcher.

Even in public, we used to enjoy some privacy, if only in our anonymity. Facial-recognition technology is one reason that's increasingly less true.

You can check out the service at Thanks to David Canton for pointing out the Wired article.

No comments: