Friday, December 29, 2006

New facial recognition software raises privacy concerns

Last year I blogged about a company called Riya that was going to bring facial recognition technology to the masses (With facial recognition available to the masses, privacy through anonymity may go out the window). I haven't heard much about Riya since then, but recently a company called Polar Rose has been in the news for a similar product.

What seems to make their technology different is an internet explorer and firefox plugin that allows people to collectively identify individuals in photos on the 'net and tag them in the company's database.

The privacy concerns are pretty obvious, but it gets even more troubling when you think about the increasing amount of surveillance, webcams and other photos of individuals that are appearing on the internet without the knowledge or consent of the individuals in the photos. Combine this technology and Microsoft's new "street sweeper" photo trucks (Windows Live Local Virtual Earth and Privacy in Public), and there'll be records of where you've been from time to time.

The company's blog has some interesting things to say on their software and privacy:

On Privacy and Polar Rose

In the wake of the coverage of our upcoming launch, there’s been a natural discussion about what effect Polar Rose will have on privacy. We’re conscious of this issue and have been so from the very start; when founding the company, when first introducing the idea to Nordic Venture Partners (our investors), and with colleagues before and after they were hired.

It should come as little surprise that we believe that Polar Rose adds tremendous value to the photo web. We think we’re as harmful to the photo web, as Altavista, Yahoo!, and Google have been to the text web. By sorting the text web, these search engines exposed the wonderful resource of public documents that web had already become. The side-effect was that information which was not meant for public consumption, but which was kept private by obscurity, was suddenly exposed and searchable.

So is the photo web today. Hundreds of millions of photos that are screaming to be sorted, viewed, and searched are not being so because no one took the time – or had a facility like Flickr or other photo-sharing sites – to add descriptions, names, or tags. We want to sort this photo web to make each photo more valuable to the viewer, but also to the person who shot it. Tell the story, make it discoverable.

We’ll end up finding photos that the published never really thought of as being public. The trick, however, is not to turn off the technology, just like Altavista or any of the subsequent search engines weren’t shut down or otherwise censored. The challenge is to facilitate a way to make sure that photos that shouldn’t be in our database, aren’t. This can be by restricting access or by telling us not to pick them up.

  • We don’t index private photos; photos behind a firewall, login, or on a user’s desktop computer. (We’ll do some partnerships where private photos will be indexed, but thus only for the individual user’s viewing)
  • We honor robots.txt and subsequent requests by a site owner to remove photos from our database.
  • We’ll never engage Polar Rose in the application of the technology in security or surveillance. It’s explicitly stated in the contracts we enter with partners.

While we believe we have a good grip of the privacy issues at hand, more are going to pop up. I and others from within the company will continue to post on this subject here and anywhere else the discussion happens – by email, phone or on other blogs. Privacy will always, always stay top-of-mind.

See: Better photo search could reduce privacy (AP).

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