Google moves to add facial recognition to search?

Google recently acquired Neven Vision, a company with lots of technology related to image-processing, specifically, facial recognition. The initial aim of this IP acquisition is to integrate it with Picasa, Google’s photo-organizing tool and online-photo sharing site. According to Google:

“It could be as simple as detecting whether or not a photo contains a person, or, one day, as complex as recognizing people, places, and objects…”

The article goes on to speculate that Google may use this technology to enable searching of people on the web by any photos of them that may be online. Certainly, this wouldn’t be out of their league, and they’ve been interested in this technology for some time. Indeed, Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, has said that image recognition is something they’d like to do. Despite the obvious usefulness of such a tool, it does raise privacy questions.

Add it to the list

Besides facial recognition, Google is also active in voice recognition as well, and have hinted at using it serve up web ads based on what’s playing on your TV. (Seems far-fetched at present time) Their OCR technology is also pretty decent, as Google Book Search is able to search the full text of many books online, that have had their pages scanned in – the service will also hilite the relevant passages, a neat feature. All of these services are part of Google’s future plans to catalogue and make available for search, all forms of information, not just those that are presented as text on the web.

Do no evil

Of course, while Google has been getting attention from privacy advocates as of late, because of the huge amounts of information they collect from users, they’re one of the better companies when it comes to keeping your information private. When the US DOJ tried to get search engine companies to turn over anonymized search queries for their users, all of them complied except for Google, which took the matter to court and won. Thus, Google is probably one of the companies you should worry about less, as there are many others who have less or no respect for an individual’s privacy. However, recent blunders by AOL have done little to quell the fears of privacy advocates.

Facial recognition is almost certainly used by governments, as it’s an important tool for them. So, what’s the big deal with Google getting it, then, if it’s already in use? Well, the problem is that this signals the technology is becoming more available and pervasive, and indeed, as that happens, we will become more used to it. The fact that anything you put on the Internet can, and will, be viewable by all is only driven home more by the use of this technology – some people still don’t realize this, though.

Reasonable expectation of privacy

While it’s probably true that when you go out in public, you have little to no expectation of privacy, I doubt that this is a good thing overall. Facial recognition technology, when fully developed, and combined with a network of security cameras could enable automated tracking of a person’s whereabouts – no need for them to be carrying a cellphone or other tracking device. Is this a good thing? Some would argue it would better enable the tracking of criminals and terrorists, but I believe the potential for abuse is very real and something that needs to be addressed.

While I don’t think Google would abuse this technology, others certainly would, which is why I think people need to be aware of what’s going on and for companies like Google to be open about what they’re planning on doing with it.

Comments for this entry are closed

But feel free to indulge in some introspective thought.