Face tagging of photos raises privacy concerns

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Marlis Funk is never without a camera. Every week, the Vancouver resident uploads dozens of pictures to the Internet to chronicle her social life and highlight her work as a wedding photographer.

Whether the photographs are for her small business, Imaging by Marlis, or are personal, Funk’s started to think twice when it comes time to tag who’s in her online albums. Add into the mix applications that use facial-recognition technology to speed along the people-tagging process and Funk is even more apprehensive.

“It freaks the heck out of me. I don’t like things running automatically like that—where I wouldn’t have control,” Funk told the Georgia Straight in an interview by phone. “Maybe it will tag a photo that I wouldn’t want to be tagged in because it is awkward or funny. My online personality can be seen by potential clients researching me. And they could see some photos that maybe I don’t want them to see.”

Most people are familiar with the process of manually tagging faces in photos posted on Facebook or adding people to a picture on Flickr. Despite privacy concerns, many people now seem ready to embrace the latest trend: automatic photo tagging. Google’s Picasa image-organizing software and Face.com’s Photo Finder and Photo Tagger apps for Facebook use facial-recognition technology to make tagging images easier.

“Most people just love the fact that there are so many more photos of themselves and their friends out there that they didn’t know about,” Gil Hirsch, the cofounder and CEO of Face.com, told the Straight by phone from the company’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“It’s kinda techy and geeky, but in layman’s terms what we were trying to do with the technology that wasn’t done before was not only focus on different areas of the face [to scan], but to try and compare you to many people that we know are not you and try and figure out what it is about that face that makes it so distinctive from others.

“When it comes to faces, the differences are very delicate,” Hirsch added. “We as humans are very good at taking notice of these subtle differences, but a machine needs a lot of help to figure that out.”

Hirsch touts the benefits of his company’s two creations. With Photo Finder, he said, people can scour the Internet in seconds and discover photos of themselves and their friends they may have never knew existed. Photo Tagger examines faces in pictures in order to automatically tag friends in albums on Facebook.

“To date, we’ve identified 24 billion faces on photos and on Facebook,” Hirsch said. He expects that number to grow with around 18,000 developers using their application programming interface to integrate his brand of facial-recognition software into their apps. “Through their services, we are getting a lot more data and a lot more information and are providing a lot more results,” he said.

Hirsch insists people shouldn’t be apprehensive about using the service. He said privacy is a top concern for his company. According to Hirsch, Face.com has never received a single complaint about privacy violations or information being misused due to its apps.

“We are not maintaining photos. Photos pass through our system, we recognize people, and we dump it back,” he said. “What we do maintain is links back to the original location or photo or profile ID on the social network. Generally this allows us to create a privacy model where we are always back-to-back with whatever privacy settings you have on Facebook.”

However, Peter Chow-White, an assistant professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, warns that people should be aware that scanning and tagging photos isn’t just for friends. Marketing companies also have a keen interest in the technology, because they can mine personal data for market research.

“There are privacy concerns with every bit of information we put out there, including with facial-recognition software,” Chow-White told the Straight in a phone interview. “Face tagging can be used by marketing companies to see how close we are to certain mentions of words or advertisements. It’s all a way of collecting as much information as possible and data mining this information to try and segment the population.”

Chow-White worries that with personal information stored on servers around the world, people are making their online lives vulnerable to corporate interests.

“These communication networks are globalized,” he said. “I mean, it is just the world that we live in now. This information that we put online, most of us have no idea where it goes or who does what with it.”

Hirsch maintains Face.com uses the growing number of faces going through its service to create a faster product. He said none of the information is sold to third parties.

Still, Chow-White argues it’s important for people to read the fine print on any terms of use before hitting accept.

“Data mining of personal information is a major issue in the digital age, if not one of the most important ones in terms of information technology,” he said. “Right now, we are used to things like network neutrality or usage-based billing, but our rights about our personal information, really there are very little regulations.”

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