A transparent world through face recognition and the great challenge for privacy

2/18/2010 | Christian Kreutz

As if the digital world was not already big enough, it still keeps expanding to the offline or physical world. But what does offline anyway means these days with ubiquitous mobile Internet access? That term is losing its meaning. Should that be a problem? Yes, because Internet users and social media invades the privacy of many people, who do not want to be as public and also happen to have healthy scepticism about some technical achievements.

The example of digital face recognition

There is a drastic change on how the Internet is gathering information about the offline world. Tim O'Reilly calls it information shadow (pdf). One great example is to offer digital maps for advocacy. Another example is facial recognition, where the story looks a lot different. It is not new that software is able to recognize faces out of  digital images to identify persons from a database. Security services around the world use it. What has changed?

  1. **The face recognition technology has got very precise. **Even out of a moving mass, people can be recognized and persons can be easily identified.  The book radical cartography has a map from an activist, who shows that there is only one way left to walk through downtown Manhattan where you are not filmed.
  2. Surveillance is a growing worldwide. Increasingly, everything is filmed. Holland and England are the front runners in Europe, although "it displaces crime, rather than reducing it". Ironically, security services themselves have a problem as the latest killing of Hamas's Mahmoud al-Mabhouh shows. There is spooky footage from the  preparation of the assassination. But it goes even further: German police is experimenting with drones for civil use (unmanned air vehicles).
  3. The face** recognition feature is increasingly included in all types of** software. As a consequence, we offer companies a huge database of people's faces. Apple offers it now in there iPhoto version and Google offers it in Picasa. The strangely named company Vitaman D offers surveillance software to everyone. A web cam becomes a tool to spy on your neighbours.
  4. **People tagging themselves and their friends and family in photos on a massive scale. **Facebook members upload around 3 billion photos each month. We, as members, help to build a gigantic database for face recognition. Of course not only members are tagged, but also people, who might never want to be part of that. Facebook does that intentionally and even aknowledge the fact in their terms of services. Seems they cannot get enough of their existing members.

Google has a face recognition feature already built in their Goggles software for mobile phones, but luckily it is so far blocked. But for how long? Imagine you sit in a cafe and make a photo of a person and get all available information from that person – forum entries, work life, etc. To be fair, they will also launch soon a translation function, where you can take a photo of a menu in a restaurant with your mobile phone and it will be translated within minutes.  A typical example of this dilemma: Practical technology achievements, but also huge consequences for privacy.

Mark Zuckerberg is leading the way into a scary future, where he wants us to forget about privacy and open up our Facebook accounts. Ironically, in the end, he closed down his profile again.

The result: You become recognized if you want it or not, and each day in more places around the world. I personally find this very scary. Consequences are not clear, companies' intentions are not clear either.

What do you think?