Face Recognition for Online Photo Searches Sparks Privacy Fears

Mason Inman
for National Geographic News
January 5, 2007

A new type of search engine using facial recognition technology could soon be able to pinpoint images of a person among the billions of photos posted online—even if their name does not appear.

A Swedish company named Polar Rose plans to launch its service for facial searches tied to the photo-sharing site Flickr within a couple weeks.

In the next few months the firm hopes to expand the service to search images across the entire Web.

The technology promises enhanced photo finding that would make it easier to find people on the Internet.

But privacy advocates are concerned that Polar Rose and similar facial-mapping search engines will violate people's rights and potentially aid criminals.

Lee Tien is an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet watchdog group that focuses on privacy and civil liberties.

"Photos [posted online] are effectively anonymous now," Tien said, unless they are labeled with some sort if identifying text. "But if Polar Rose works the way they say it will, that's all going to change."

Tien said that this kind of technology could aid stalkers in tracking down their victims, or it could allow employers, insurance companies, and the government to pry into people's lives more than some of us would like.

(Related news: "Privacy Fears Intensified by Tech That Knows Where You Are" [October 20, 2006].)

"People are going to have to be more careful about picture-posting and figure out ways they can prevent pictures from being [analyzed] by these search engines," Tien said.

User Input

Current image searches are based on the text surrounding a photo. Images of your neighbor, for example, should only be found if his or her name is in an associated caption or article.

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