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Facebook facial recognition could get creepy

Megan Geuss | April 27, 2011
New facial recognition technology could have interesting applications and scary possibilities.

Safe Now, But What's Coming?

In the hands of smaller developers like Viewdle and Fotobounce, which keep little if any personal information on their company’s servers, face recognition could be minimally worrisome. But in the hands of Facebook, which sits on a monster database filled with dense detail about the personal lives of more than 500 million people, the technology has the potential to be creepy.

Of course, as far as we know, the company is not going any farther with its current technology than suggesting that you tag people you are already friends with in newly uploaded photos. But could Facebook ever identify people you’re not friends with and suggest that you become friends with them? “Absolutely, it would be easy to do. All that data would be on that server farm. Technically, it's totally possible to expand that,” says Applied Recognition's Ganong.

It’s not hard to imagine Facebook’s “Suggest photos of me to friends” privacy setting becoming "Suggest photos of me to friends of friends" and then “Suggest photos of me to others”--essentially allowing you to take photos of strangers on the street and request a friendship. No other company except Google could realistically offer a feature that tells you the name of a complete stranger you’d seen in the park or at a concert. In 2008 the company offered face recognition on Picasa, Google’s photo-sharing site, but it recently removed face-finding tech from its Google Goggles app until privacy issues could be resolved. It turns out that algorithmically finding faces is cool, but sharing faces can get scary.

Though Google is a giant company, one reason why its facial recognition feature in Goggles may not work is that Google doesn’t have the kind of built-in emphasis on friendship and sharing that Facebook has. Facebook’s ubiquity, and its financial interest in getting people to connect, makes it perhaps the only company in the world that could roll out the ability to recognize strangers, and get users to accept it. Some people might relish the idea of being spotted and of making connections with new people, but being able to identify a face with nothing more than a camera could have serious adverse consequences. “Facial recognition is especially troubling because cameras are ubiquitous and we routinely show our faces. And of course, one can take pictures of crowds, so it scales a bit better than, say, fingerprints,” says Lee Tien, Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney, via e-mail.

Misidentification is another problem. Gil Hirsch, CEO of, says that his company set up a very high threshold of recognition to confirm face matches on its Photo finder app. “We don't want to send you a message saying ‘Hey Megan we found a photo of you’ and it's not really you," he explained. But that threshold of recognition will be different with every system, Facebook’s included. Nevertheless, better and faster algorithms are slowly whittling down the likelihood of erroneous identifications. Compared to being accurately identified to a stranger, misidentification may register as a lesser concern. Tien of EFF notes, “If Facebook misidentifies someone, the consequences are not the same as when a police video-camera misidentifies you as a suspect.” True, unless a misidentification implicates you in dubious activities. The imagination reels.

From a business perspective, it's important to Facebook that its users tag themselves and each other in as many photos as possible. These tags create more page views, which is valuable to Facebook’s advertisers. But it could go much further. If you are tagged in a photo with three friends, advertisers could tailor information to what they think you might want based on your friend’s preferences. Though perhaps not at the level of an infringement of legal privacy rights, facial recognition in the hands of Facebook does permit advertisers an unprecedented level of information about how to get a message across to you.


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