Monday, June 28, 2010

Point, Click, Stalk?

By Robin Sax and Guest Contributor Melissa Alonzo Kriz

Ever pass by a building or landmark, wonder what it is, and wish you could find out right on the spot? Now you can -- with the click of your phone's camera and the launch of "Goggles," a new image-recognition technology that instantly provides pictures and information based on a single photo. The beta (still in testing) application was developed by Google to run on the Android operating system, also developed by Google for mobile devices.

This remarkable visual search technology soon will be expanded to allow a user to take a mobile-phone picture of an item (work of art, book, plant, etc.), then instantly search for similar images and information about the object on the Internet. As our technological capabilities increase exponentially, we might all say this was inevitable. We might be comfortable with how we'll use the new programs for fun and for good. 

But a pause is necessary.

Imagine you are at the gym or the grocery store, and a creep sidles up and manages to take a picture of you with his cell phone. Within seconds, using this image-recognition technology, he would have access to your photos on Facebook and find your name, where you work and live, and any other information about you that exists in cyberspace. That's a scary prospect. 

Take it one step further: What happens when predator aims his camera at a child on the playground? The predator would have access to similar images of the child on the web; they could lead to the child's name, school and possibly home address.

Goggles is currently limited to letting users find and learn about inanimate objects. However, technologies (including a yet-unreleased component of Goggles itself) already exist that use similar methods to crawl the web looking for images containing facial characteristics of people. The photos could be culled from your employer's public website, online community newsletters, schools' and universities' sites, Facebook and other social-networking sites, and any other public area on the web where your photo may reside (even without your knowledge).

Google has taken some heat for privacy concerns on some of its services, so for now it is holding off from releasing the facial-recognition aspect of Goggles. However, other software developers are already delivering mobile and web applications containing facial-recognition technology. Just look at your iPhoto if you are a Mac user.

The Swedish company The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) is currently testing a product called Recognizr. The TAT product allows a user to snap a photo of anyone in public, select the "recognize" button, and then receive photos and information about that person from social networking sites. TAT does have privacy policies; they offer an opt-in provision (or permission) from the subject of the photo in order for Recognizr to work. 

But TAT doesn't plan to offer its service directly to consumers. Instead, it will make the technology available to mobile-phone makers and phone-service provides so they can develop their own applications.These companies may or may not choose to follow TAT's privacy standards., an Israeli company, also has developed several products that include facial-recognition technology. Developers will be able to use and expand upon its services. One product, CelebrityFinder, uses facial recognition technology to pull all photos (and lookalikes) of a celebrity from Twitter feeds. is in the process of enhancing the face detection function to include profile poses. privacy policies say the use of its product may not violate user privacy, and that users must inform their subjects that they've been tagged and provide them the ability to remove those tags. I feel safe already.

The bottom line is that the facial recognition technology is already here. We live in a "point, click, and stalk" world. So how can we protect ourselves, and our families, from stalkers who'll use this technology to their criminal advantage? It is unlikely we can pass an enforceable law making it a crime to take a non-celebrity's photo in public, even if the photo taken is of a child.

Perhaps federal legislation could be aimed at the technology companies and mobile phone carriers? We could demand strong, mandatory privacy policies for the facial-recognition software from, TAT, and other developers as a pre-condition of sale or use. While this type of legislation wouldn't guarantee protection from illicit use of this potentially creepy technology, it would assist in increasing consumer awareness. Most of all, we must hold those who develop, host, and use the technology accountable so we can prevent the next wave of cyber-stalking before it begins.

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