Can Google Hold Back Facial Recognition For Glass?

The New Yorker blog has an interesting, short piece by Betsy Morais on the challenges posed by facial recognition and wearable technology that’s worth reading.

Google Glass POV
Facial recognition applications for Google Glass are popping up all over, despite Google’s promise not to allow them on its wearable technology.

The post, “Through a Face Scanner, Darkly” picks up on recent reports about a proliferation of facial recognition applications for the Google Glass platform, addressing the ethical implications of the intersection of wearable technology with powerful sensors and analytics capabilities, including facial recognition.

Specifically, Morais zeros in on an app called NameTag that adds a face scanner to the Glass. “Snap a photo of a passerby, then wait a minute as the image is sent up to the company’s database and a match is hunted down. The results load in front of your left eye, a selection of personal details that might include someone’s name, occupation, Facebook and/or Twitter profile, and, conveniently, whether there’s a corresponding entry in the national sex-offender registry,” Morais writes.

NameTag’s focus right now is on identifying social media whales in public – celebrities, business people and public figures with a big social media footprint. Think of it as a kind of slick “Gawker Stalker” app where you don’t need to worry as much about awkwardly pointing your cell phone or camera at your prey.

Of course, the fusion of camera and glasses that Google Glass brings already has detractors, who note that – if adopted broadly – Glass would enable a kind of grassroots surveillance of everyone by everyone. With everyone donning wearable technology that contains powerful sensors, “where does privacy end?

Google has tried to pre-empt that discussion by declaring, back in May, that it wouldn’t allow facial recognition features to Glass “without having strong privacy protections in place.” For now, that means no facial recognition Glassware will get the green light from Google.

The question, Morais says is one of “taste” – many find the idea of matching up IRL (in real life) identities with online identities unsettling, while facial recognition application developers see it as a profound convenience that Glass wearers will warm to once they experience it.

That may be true – but the bigger legal and ethical question is where an individual’s right to be anonymous begin and end. We would all object (heartily) to a government backed plan to put surveillance cameras on every street corner to record our movements. But if the government (or a company) can accomplish the same task in a grassroots way – is that any better? If a Glass wearer identifies me in front of the CVS this Thursday, does that information get recorded in Google’s cloud-based data centers and then shared with CVS (for a fee)?

Privacy groups like EPIC have warned that ubiquitous use of Glass or Glass like devices could warp our very perceptions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ space, and of our ability to be anonymous.

“Privacy is the ability to control how and to whom one expresses oneself. If a person cannot control to whom they are expressing themselves, they will tailor the nature of their expression. Without the ability to control one’s audience, individuals will fear reprisals for non-conforming, unusual, or unprofessional behavior. The resulting chilling effect will stifle creativity, innovation, and self-discovery,” EPIC wrote in a brief on Google Glass.

Those kind of arguments prompted Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, Vint Cerf, from wondering whether our notions of ‘privacy’ themselves weren’t due for change.

““Is privacy an anomaly?” Cerf wondered aloud at a November forum hosted by the FTC. He recalled his experience living in a small, German town where the “postmaster knew what everyone was doing.” Our modern concept of being ‘alone in the crowd’ is a fairly recent one, borne of the industrial revolution and the growth of urbanization, Cerf said.”

The other question, of course, is whether Google can stop the march of progress. Having provided a ready platform for facial recognition tools, the company has its hands (mostly) tied in trying to keep developers from connecting the dots. Sure: Google can keep facial recognition Glassware on the black market, but some subset of Glass users will be curious enough about it to “jailbreak” their Glass and try out the rogue application.  There’s a long record of individuals, organizations and nations who wanted to hold back the tide of progress – and it always ends the same way.

That’s all the more reason that lawmakers in the US and abroad need to get ahead of the wearables wave and set clear rules about how data gathered from these devices can be used. Its impossible and even undesirable to stop Glass wearers from recording their surroundings – just as we wouldn’t stop a photographer or documentary film maker from doing the same. It’s more reasonable for people to expect that data collected on them in public not be used to track their movements or tip-off companies about their doings and preferences.

Stay tuned for more.