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Facial recognition: Facebook photo matching just the start

John P. Mello Jr. | Sept. 21, 2011
The Internet was in an uproar earlier this year following Facebook's launch of facial recognition software for its photo services, enabling users to identify their friends in photos automatically--and without their permission. Though critics described that move as creepy, the controversial technology may now be on the verge of widespread use.

The Internet was in an uproar earlier this year following Facebook's launch of facial recognition software for its photo services, enabling users to identify their friends in photos automatically--and without their permission. Though critics described that move as creepy, the controversial technology may now be on the verge of widespread use.

For instance, this month a Massachusetts company called BI² Technologies will roll out a handheld facial recognition add-on for the iPhone to 40 law enforcement agencies. The device will allow police to conduct a quick check to see whether a suspect has a criminal record--either by scanning the suspect's iris or taking a photo of the individual's face.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the military and Georgia Tech Research Institute had started testing on autonomous aerial drones that could use facial recognition software to identify and attack human targets--in effect, the software performs the assessment that determines who gets killed.

And in yet another development, the Federal Trade Commission announced earlier this week that it will hold a free public workshop on December 8, 2011, to examine various issues related to personal privacy, consumer protection, and facial recognition technology.

Of course, the government and large private companies have had access to facial recognition software for years. The pressing question today is what happens to privacy when everyone has access to the technology? Already smaller businesses--and even private individuals--are developing sometimes amazing, sometimes very creepy uses for security-focused software.

In Las Vegas, advertisers have taken a page from Minority Report, the 2002 Tom Cruise movie. The Vegas advertisers use facial recognition to target ads to passers-by. For instance, if a woman in her mid-twenties walks past the advertising kiosk, its built-in software will identify her likely age and gender and then display ads for products deemed appealing to her specific demographic.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a startup called SceneTap links facial recognition technology to cameras in bars and clubs so that users can figure out which bars have the most desirable (in their opinion) ratio of women to men--before they even arrive.

If you think the corporate implications are unsettling, wait until the general population gets deeply involved in using facial recognition technology. One recent instance: In the wake of the August London riots, a Google group of private citizens called London Riots Facial Recognition emerged with the aim of using publicly available records and facial recognition software to identify rioters for the police as a form of citizen activism (or vigilante justice, depending on how you feel about it). The group finally abandoned its efforts when its experimental facial recognition app yielded disappointing results.

 

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