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Privacy in the age of Picasa

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Do you recognize her? Picasa did. Do you recognize her? Picasa did.

Politically Incorrect and privacy issues


With over 70,000 photos stored on my computer, finding a particular photo when I want it has become more than a little difficult. So in April, I decided to ‘activate’ the facial recognition software in my computer’s photography software.

I use Google’s Picasa to organize and view my photos. Given that it’s a free program, I didn’t expect its facial recognition capabilities to be at a “professional” level but anything, I reasoned, would be better than spending five hours scrolling through tens of thousands of photos looking for what I need.

At first it was kind of fun. Picasa would scroll through faces and ask me the names of those it picked out. It quickly became irritating, of course, as I found myself struggling to remember people’s names. “Oh,” I would say as a face came up. “That’s, um... aargh! It’s the mother of that kid who was in Dustin’s class in school, um.... darn it!”

If names are the first things to go, I can honestly say that my memory is officially sledding downhill, and picking up speed as it goes.

Nonetheless, I named an awful lot of people and then Picasa went from “who is this?” to “is this ___?” 

Picasa wasn’t always correct in its guesses, but more often than not it came up with the right name. And even when it didn’t, most times its guess was a close family member of the person pictured.

“Hmmm,” I found myself wondering. “If I scanned in all the kids’ baby pictures, I wonder if Picasa could tell them apart?”

The answer, if you were wondering, is yes. In fact, Picasa could identify pictures that I wasn’t totally sure of myself. All three of my kids looked an awful lot like each other when they were little, and many times I’ve found I can only identify which is which by the context of the photo. Picasa, it seems, doesn’t have that problem.

Then it got a little scary. On a number of photos, Picasa didn’t even bother asking me anymore whether it was right or not; it just decided it was, and when I checked, the program was correctly identifying an awful lot of people. And doing so despite the fact that some of those photos, to me, didn’t look very much at all like the person they were taken of. Full facial paint, elaborate glasses, facial hair or no facial hair, variations in weight, wigs... none of those items were stopping Picasa from being able to identify the people pictured. The only things that seemed to stump the program were full-face Mardi Gras masks, and the pig noses the Keokee team wore one year for the adult spelling bee. (And the pig noses didn’t stop it for long.)

So how does this work? 

In two dimensions (like in a typical photograph) each face has certain characteristics that can be measured: the distance between the eyes, the width of the nose, the length of the jawline, the shape of cheekbones and the depth of the eye socket. Those measurements are combined to create a measurement called a faceprint.

Three-dimensional software adds to this measurements from areas of the face that don’t change over time, like the curves of the nose, chin and eye sockets.

But that’s not all. Some forms of facial recognition software also measure skin texture. Yes, you read that right, skin texture.  A surface texture analysis measures a patch of skin to distinguish lines, pores and actual skin texture. This process, believe it or not, can allow facial recognition software to tell the difference between identical twins. 

I don’t know which level of algorithms Picasa uses for matching faces; as a business, I’m guessing they consider that proprietary information. But Google gained this ability when it perched Neven Vision back in 2006, an image recognition technology developed by Nevenengineering, Inc. Neven Vision is generally used by police departments for matching images of people to criminals in their database.

This technology, by the way, is only new to me—it’s been in place in several different applications for many years now, and its use is growing all the time. The popular social networking site Facebook offers an application called Photo Finder to search photos uploaded by yourself or your friends and will suggest “tags” (names) for the photos it finds. Apple’s iPhoto also has face recognition software. These programs are all ‘learning’ programs—that is, as you ‘name’ people in photographs, the software becomes better and better at finding those faces in photographs that have not yet been tagged.

It’s estimated that on Facebook alone, 2.5 billion photographs are uploaded every month, and Facebook represents only a small amount of the photographs stored online.

Which begins to beg some very serious privacy issues. Facebook claims ownership of all photos you upload to it, rendering moot any complaints about an expectation of privacy for your photos. Google (which owns Picasa along with a bunch of other stuff), has a similar policy that takes away some of your rights to the photographs you upload to its services. Do we even know what the TSA is doing with all those body scans? Supposedly they don’t keep them but last August, the U.S. Marshal’s Service in Orlando, Florida was busted for doing just that.

And that’s just photographs. You don’t have to be a libertarian to start feeling a little nervous about the amount of information about you that’s now available to those with the skills to access it. 

Google search tracks every web page you visit, regardless of how you’ve set your browser history. The Medical Information Bureau maintains a database on any person who has applied for life, health or disability insurance, or who has received benefits from subscribing companies, for the last seven years. School districts (well, at least one of them) have spied on students at home via the webcam on their laptops. WalMart is embedding radio tracking tags (RFID tags) in the underwear and jeans they sell, in order to track the path a consumer takes through the store. Our neighbors in Washington are issuing driver’s licenses that contain RFID tags with unique ID tags. 

And then we learn that Apple’s iPhone and iPad is storing information about every place you’ve been with either device; the information includes a time stamp and the GPS coordinates. 

I started out trying to save some time in identifying photos, and by the time I was done, I felt like we’re all living in Minority Report.

Now I’m looking for one of those “bloat-up-your-face-so-it’s unrecognizable” gadgets like Tom Cruise had in the movie, Hopefully it won’t have an RFID tag implanted in it.


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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Facebook, iPhone, privacy, Picasa, photographs, RFID tags, WalMart, facial recognition software, photo finder, iphoto, ipad, TSA, Google, Medical Information Bureau, webcam, Politically Incorrect

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