Facebook Facial Recognition a Privacy Issue?

Facebook recently announced it’s facial recognition software and so shouts of “Privacy Issues” are screaming across the blogosphere. But how much of a privacy issue is it?  The statement used by Facebook, “We’ve automatically grouped similar pictures”. Background, lighting, and other elements of the image can be used to group similar pictures.  In fact, Techcrunch reported that “Google researchers published a paper describing progress they are making in teaching computers how to identify famous landmarks” in a post dated June 22, 2009. Granted this isn’t facial recognition software they are developing, but the momentous task of identifying faces is equivalent if not greater than identifying landmarks.

Facebook’s spokes person is being anything but clear as to what level they are taking this. This statement given, “It’s pretty standard technology that is already out there,” would suggest it’s not an ID system. Identifying people is not a standard technology.  Face.com has been working on developing this technology for some time.  However, face recognition is a common technology.  Many digital cameras quickly and easily identify a face within the frame.  Two eyes, a nose and mouth grouped closely together are pretty easy to find.

Having said that, Facebook could be a learning system with potential to breach facial identification.  Apple has provided a face recognition software that allows tagging with their iPhoto since 2009. Apple’s software does begin to identify faces that you tag regularly. The more you tag an individual the easier it is for the computer to identify and auto suggest an individual, not just a face. When tagging with iPhoto, the program can also find/sort images on your computer for that individual’s face. They also allow places tagging. The cool part is that you can search your photos by places or faces. So to say that Facebook can’t do it would not be an accurate statement either. And even if they cannot do it now, who is to say that they won’t go back and do it later once the technology is perfected?

And for those that want to believe it’s a violation of their privacy and the Big Brother Skynet is just around the corner, Justin Mitchele does state “…to match your new photos to other photos you’re tagged in. We group similar photos together and, whenever possible, suggest the name of the friend in the photos.” So is Facebook creating identification software? The common link in the facebook suggest is you. It connects you to your friends. Connecting you to a random photo of you on the internet taken by a stranger is still a long way off. Without significant input from human users that can teach the facial recognition software with whom to link the image, facial recognition software used to identify individuals is still a light-year away.

Testing the Facebook Identification Software

So far the software is not available for all users. I did get a quick sneak peek and this is screen shot of them grouping Arnie’s photo together.

Photos from AZIMA meet up. | "Who is this?"

The fact that it grouped Arnie’s images together at the top is not too alarming as it could be attributed to the lighting, background, and sequence. But Arnie’s profile image was also in sequence and the lighting background is similar. Further David Mihm’s profile image following Arnie’s was not grouped in. With these as indicators, the software is certainly more sophisticated than a simple face recognition program. The software very well could be a photo identification/privacy nightmare.

Although I must admit that I did appreciate the auto rotation Facebook threw in with their new program. Yes, they now have auto horizontal/vertical image rotation. Man I love time saving inventions.  Just wish I knew how to bank that time saved.

Thomas Ballantyne
“Don’t mind me, I am just the pest control guy.”
Find me on twitter @Thos003