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Yes Virginia, Privacy is Dead July 17, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.

Twenty-odd years ago, as a computer science graduate student studying artificial intelligence, I learned that one of the most difficult problems in the field was recognizing objects.  We couldn’t describe things as precisely as we needed to in order for a computer algorithm to make a comparison between the description and an actual object.

As it turns out, AI isn’t quite as difficult as we were making it at the time.  It really only required three things – a huge database, fast computers, and really good search algorithms.  That’s how computer chess programs such as Deep Thought were able to play world class chess.

If this sounds like Google today, well, you’re right.  This feature in Slate talks about the reality of face recognition, and what it will mean for us.  It quotes a Google engineer as saying that they could do a reasonably good job of matching a photo to a name if they had seventeen photos online to compare it with, and nearly a perfect job with fifty.

You might think that this has little to do with you, but you would be wrong.  The Slate article notes that if a decade ago the US Government had tried to put together a database of faces, it would have spent billions of dollars and not done nearly as good a job at it as we collectively have with Facebook.

(Disclosure: While you will find a Peter Varhol on Facebook, it isn’t me.)

There’s a lot of comments that are worthwhile making here, including our changing views of privacy, the value of user-generated content, and the essential value of Eric Raymond’s bazaar.

Instead, however, let me offer the renowned quote of the immortal Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Our seeming need for sharing has enabled the creation of a database far beyond what any government might have been able to accomplish.

Computer scientists and engineers have produced fast systems and really good search algorithms.  Collectively, we’ve created the database.  Now, if anyone wants to know who you are, they simply take your photo.  With their phone.  And have your identity and all available search details on you on your phone screen a few seconds later.

You might ask what this does that is not already available through a name search.  The answer is the name.  In a casual encounter, or just passing someone on the street, you might wish to remain anonymous.  But it won’t be your choice any longer.

The Slate article notes that Google has declined to release such an application at this time, even though the technology is well within reach.  It speculates that it doesn’t want to be the first to do so.

But it will happen.  And we had better be prepared to wear our identification and all of our searchable details wherever we go.  On our face.



1. immolator - July 18, 2011

It reminds me the book I’ve recently read – http://craphoulatestnd.com/littlebrother/ (I know it was published a long time ago…). Pretty relevant.

And yes, we don’t like to be cataloged by force. We (a “global” society in general; I don’t have a FB profile 😉 do like to expose ourselves by spreading our identity and behavior profile. Sad.

2. Face Recognition is Closer than You Think « Cutting Edge Computing - March 3, 2012

[…] Face recognition sounds like a bridge too far.  It’s not even every possible scenario, because face recognition has the potential to do a lot of good, such as finding criminals or missing persons.  But if I can take your photo, and within seconds know your name and all searchable details, then I know too much about you. […]

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