Why Facebook Facial Recognition is Creepy: Redux

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Several months ago I wrote an article called "Why Facebook Facial Recognition is Creepy." It was sparked by a feature Facebook had just rolled out to people--facial recognition, or the ability to identify people in photos.

In my article, I argued that Facebook's new feature was creepy--not because of how Facebook was using it, but because of the implications such a technology has for the future of privacy. Sure, the technology has been around for awhile--and many companies have been developing it--but what scares me the most about Facebook in particular is its incredibly vast archive of user photos from which to draw.

Facial recognition technology, on its face (excuse the pun), isn't that scary--because it can't be seriously developed without an exhaustive archive of photos. Google has said that facial recognition technology is creepy--but even Google using and developing facial recognition technology wouldn't be all that worrisome, because Google doesn't have an extensive archive of tagged user photos, just begging to be tapped into.

Well, let me say right now that I told you so.

According to Mashable, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University recently proved that Facebook's vast photo archive can be used to identify people on the street. Yes, in real life. Yes, we can totally use Facebook's archive to identify people in real life, from photos on the web.

Details of the Research

The study, titled "Faces of Facebook: Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality," was performed by Alessandro Acquisti, Ralph Gross, and Fred Stutzman. The results of the study were demonstrated recently at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. The researchers took publicly available photos of students from Facebook and then used facial recognition technology to identify the students as they looked into a webcam.

And it worked. The facial recognition software correctly identified 31 percent of the students after less than three "quick comparisons." In another test, the researchers took photos from 277,978 Facebook profiles and compared them against profiles from an online dating Website. In this test, the researchers were able to correctly identify 10 percent of the dating site's members using facial recognition technology.

The researchers say that the study is less about face recognition and more about "privacy concerns raised by the convergence of various technologies." Er, yeah. You got that right. Google's Eric Schmidt has said that young people may eventually want to change their names, thanks to the Internet. The researchers point out that it's "much harder, however, to change someone's face."


So that's where we're at. Facial recognition technology is advanced enough to correctly identify 30 percent of people in real life in just three tries--that's not exactly a small percentage. And sure, you could just "not use Facebook," but this is obviously not the extent of the technology.

How much longer until identification comes with just one photo? If that ever comes to fruition, it won't matter whether you're on Facebook or not, because people will only need one photo of you. Facial recognition technology is only "limited" by the people in Facebook's photo database until the tech becomes advanced enough to be able to map a face without an archive of photos.

How many of you--who are not on Facebook--can honestly say that nobody has ever taken a photo of you ever, in your entire life?

That's what I thought.

[Enjoy Pixable.com's infographic on the history of Facebook photos]

Follow Sarah on Twitter (@geeklil) or on Facebook

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