Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Facebook buys rudimentary face-recognition technology; will soon be able to identify human beings by looking at them

In a canny business move, Facebook bought a company which has developed a program for identifying and automatically tagging people in pictures.  Predictably, privacy advocates are already starting to flip out, but have they considered the range of possibilities opened up by this technological advance?  Too long have human beings stared at their pictures in bewilderment, wondering things like "Who is that guy standing next to me?" and "Which of my friends is which?"  Soon, with the power the microchip and the Internet, we'll be able to conclusively resolve these eternal and perplexing questions.

Okay, so, obviously, I'm skeptical of the privacy concerns here.  There's already a platform that comes preloaded with some of the best facial recognition software imaginable: our brains.  It might be surprising to be identified by a computer, but it's hard to imagine very many contexts in which a person couldn't have done so, with twice the accuracy and half as much data about you.

Yes, this technology could probably be mildly abused in some contexts.  Someone with a very high level of access to Facebook--so basically, Mark Zuckerberg, or in some scenarios, national governments--might be able to conduct a sort of Facebook-wide search for an individual, identifying pictures he's appeared in and who he has appeared in pictures with.  Of course, in most situations, the exact same thing could be done with access to the pictures themselves, some functioning human eyeballs, and a little bit of clever detective work.

In the meantime, for the rest of us, this is actually a fairly amazing piece of technology.  It saves time and makes it easier to divine the social linkages that are the raison d'ĂȘtre of social networking.  Privacy advocates  sometimes appear to labor under the strange belief that social networks like Facebook exist in order to give account-holders a secret bubble in which to build unviewable profiles.  But that's not quite right, is it?  People join networks to see and be seen, and most of Facebook's supposedly-creepy new tech just serves as a means to that end.

Well, except, ten bucks says it doesn't work and tags people all wrong.  Facebook has 800 million faces to draw from, after all.  There's bound to be someone else on it who looks like you.  Most likely, in order to fix this problem, the system will be designed to draw its guesses from a narrow pool of people who the network already closely associates with you, meaning that it doesn't add a whole lot of new Creepy Spying Functionality above and beyond what the network is already capable of.

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