Does Facial Recognition Technology Mean the End of Privacy?

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At the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, researchers from Carnegie Mellon demonstrated how the same facial recognition technology used to tag Facebook photos could be used to identify random people on the street. This facial recognition technology, when combined with geo-location, could fundamentally change our notions of personal privacy.

In Europe, facial recognition technology has already stirred up its share of controversy, with German regulators threatening to sue Facebook up to half-a-million dollars for violating European privacy rules. But it’s not only Facebook – both Google (with PittPatt) and Apple (with Polar Rose) are also putting the finishing touches on new facial recognition technologies that could make it easier than ever before to connect our online and offline identities. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then your face is the window to your personal identity.

And it’s for that reason that privacy advocates in both Europe and the USA are up in arms about the new facial recognition technology. What seems harmless at first – the ability to identify your friends in photos – could be something much more dangerous in the hands of anyone else other than your friends for one simple reason: your face is the key to linking your online and offline identities. It’s one thing for law enforcement officials to have access to this technology, but what if your neighbor suddenly has the ability to snoop on you?

The researchers at Carnegie Mellon showed how a combination of simple technologies – a smart phone, a webcam and a Facebook account – were enough to identify people after only a three-second visual search. Hackers – once they can put together a face and the basics of a personal profile – like a birthday and hometown – they can start piecing together details like your Social Security Number and bank account information.

And the Carnegie Mellon technology used to show this? You guessed it – it’s based on PittPatt (for Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition Technology), which was acquired by Google, meaning that you may soon be hearing the Pitter Patter of small facial recogntion bots following you around any of Google’s Web properties. The photo in your Google+ Profile, connected seamlessly to video clips of you from YouTube, effortlessly linked to photos of your family and friends in a Picasa album – all of these could be used to identify you and uncover your private identity. Thankfully, Google is not evil.

Forget being fingerprinted, it could be far worse to be Faceprinted. It’s like the scene from The Terminator, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is able to identify his targets by employing a futuristic form of facial recognition technology. Well, the future is here.

Imagine a complete stranger taking a photo of you and immediately connecting that photo to every element of your personal identity and using that to stalk you (or your wife or your daughter). It happened to reality TV star Adam Savage – when he uploaded a photo to his Twitter page of his SUV parked outside his home, he didn’t realize that it included geo-tagging meta-data. Within hours, people knew the exact location of his home. Or, imagine walking into a store, and the sales floor staff doing a quick visual search using a smart phone camera, finding out what your likes and interests are via Facebook or Google, and then tailoring their sales pitch accordingly. It’s targeted advertising, taken to the extreme.

Which is not to say that everything about facial recognition technology is scary and creepy. Gizmodo ran a great piece explaining all the “advantages” of being recognize onlined. (Yet, two days later, Gizmodo also ran a piece explaining how military spies could track you down almost instantly with facial recognition technology, no matter where you are in the world).

Which raises the important question: Is Privacy a Right or a Privilege? Now that we’re all celebrities in the Internet age, it doesn’t take much to extrapolate that soon we’ll all have the equivalent of Internet paparazzi incessantly snapping photos of us and intruding into our daily lives. Cookies, spiders, bots and spyware will seem positively Old School by then. The people with money and privilege and clout will be the people who will be able to erect barriers around their personal lives, living behind the digital equivalent of a gated community. The rest of us? We’ll live our lives in public.

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