TrendConsumer-driven face recognition changes public debate

Published 4 March 2009

New photo programs from Apple and Google include revolutionary face-spotting technology; trouble is, Google’s Picasa would allow tagged photos from all its Picasa users to create a global database matching photos to e-mail addresses

Some people have 25,000 digital photographs or more stored on their computer hard drives — most of them of people. Until now, the only means of tracking down a familiar face was to search manually: by date, EXIF data, “tags,” or one’s own memory. Now computers can do the searching, thanks to the nifty face-recognition feature that Apple and Google have put into the latest versions of their photo-management systems.

Technology Review’s By Simson Garfinkel and Beth Rosenberg write that face recognition was one of those brilliant but technically iffy and ethically tricky counterterrorism technologies deployed as a result of the 9/11 attacks. The idea was automatically to screen out terrorists as they walked through security checkpoints — only it did not work out that way: at a test in Tampa, Florida, for example, airport employees were correctly identified only 53 percent of the time. Civil-liberties groups also raised concerns about false positives — people being mistakenly identified as terrorists, and possibly arrested, just because of their looks. Without a demonstratable benefit, face recognition, at least for now, has largely dropped off the public’s radar.

Garfinkel and Rosenberg point out, though, that many countries, including the United States, quietly revised their requirements for passport photos to make these photos friendlier to face-recognition software. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which had been testing the technology since 1994, conducted large-scale face-recognition tests in 2002 and 2006. Oregon and some other states began using face recognition to detect when one person tries to obtain a license under different names.

Garfinkel and Rosenberg are interested in two new applications — iPhoto from Apple and Picasa from Google. They find Picasa technology to be nothing short of “creepy” (their adjective). This is why: Instead of starting with a photo of someone you know and searching for all the similar matches, Google takes every photo that you have uploaded to Picasa, searches them all for faces, then “clusters” these faces into groups of, supposedly, the same people. You then go through each group and tell Google who a person is — including his or her full name, nickname, and e-mail address.

Moreover, Google’s clustering isn’t all that great, but the user interface is pretty easy to employ. “Before you know it, you’ll have every one of your photos tagged with all the real names and e-mail addresses of each person that the photo features,” Garfinkel and Rosenberg write.

It is this real-name tagging is what makes Google’s face recognition so creepy. Remember that all these photos are not on your computer: they are on Google’s server. Because e-mail addresses are unique, Google could use the tagged photos from all its Picasa users to create a global database matching photos to e-mail addresses. “Doing so would not even violate Google’s privacy policy, so long as Google only uses this information to make its service “better” and does not make the database generally available,” write Garfinkel and Rosenberg, and add:

But what’s really unsettling about Google’s service is that it doesn’t just stop at your friends. Before you know it, Google is asking you to identify all those other faces in your photographs — the people standing in the background, the faces in the crowds, even the faces on posters. This is certainly keeping with Google’s corporate mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But is that what we really want from a photo-sharing website?

The two conclude that

We believe that consumer-driven face-recognition technology will fundamentally change public-policy debates about biometrics and mass video surveillance. After September 11, nobody really understood how this technology worked, what it got right, and what it got wrong. But before the end of this year, millions of Americans will have first-hand experience with some of the very best face-recognition systems ever deployed. Once the family-photo novelty wears off, we’ll be watching to see if iPhoto and Picasa users ask their government to regulate this technology—or accelerate its deployment.