Still smarting from the privacy furor over Buzz and then the inadvertent collection of personal data from WiFi networks by its Street View cars, the Financial Times reports that Google is reconsidering how and whether it should use facial recognition technology:
Eric Schmidt, chief executive, said a series of public disputes over privacy issues had caused the management team to review its procedures and the launch of new technologies. According to Google executives, facial recognition is one of the key topics of internal debate . . .
Facial recognition has the potential to be the next privacy flashpoint. Google already uses the technology in its Picasa photo sharing service. This lets users tag some of the people in their photos and then searches through other albums to suggest other pictures in which the same faces appear.
The article says the company declined to include the technology in Google Goggles. The use case here is obvious: take a picture of a person and bring up their social network profiles and any other associated online information.
In terms of the data revealed, this would effectively be the same as conducting a search through Google.com (or people search engines like WhitePages.com or People123) and finding the same information. But there’s something potentially unsettling and much more “creepy” about the ability to take a picture with a camera phone and instantaneously learn everything known online about a person.
Because of its position in the market Google is wise to be cautious. The company has many critics. Where a product launch or announcement by a smaller company might see some objections, a similar move by Google (or now Facebook) can launch “an international incident,” literally. Speaking of which there’s almost no way that facial recognition searching on mobile devices would fly in Europe and maybe Canada as well. The privacy outcry would be deafening.
While it’s good for Google to be cautious and mindful of privacy implications, in another sense it would be unfortunate if the company failed to bring tools and services to market for “political” reasons.