CHANCES are Facebook knows a lot about you. But can it pick you out in a crowd?
Probably not yet, but it could be possible soon. Facebook has confirmed it is buying the five-year-old Israel startup Face.com, maker of facial recognition software. ( One estimate of the price was about $60 million.)
Facebook already uses Face.com’s technology in its photo tagging suggestions, which attempt to guess which of your friends are in pictures that you upload to the site – occasionally with awkward results. Now that it owns the company, it is assumed Facebook will improve on the service and look to unveil facial recognition for pictures taken on mobile phones.
From a business perspective, the acquisition seems natural: Facebook knows mobile photo-sharing is central to its future, and the Face.com buy dovetails with its purchase of Instagram and launch of Facebook Camera.
From a human perspective, though, it could be argued the prospect of Facebook building an ever-wider database that links people’s faces to their personal information is a little eerie.
In a study published last year, a team of Carnegie Mellon researchers found that they could combine off-the-shelf facial recognition software – in this case, Google’s pittpatt technology – with Facebook data and a computer algorithm to guess not only people’s names, but in some cases their social security numbers, based solely on snapshots taken with a webcam.
This only worked for a minority of the photos in the study. People who did not have any public Facebook photos were mostly immune to identification, says Alessandro Acquisti, the study’s lead author (though one subject found he had been tagged publicly in a friend’s photo without his knowledge).
But facial recognition software is improving rapidly. And software like Face.com’s gets better and learns more every time someone uses the tagging suggestions and clicks ”yes” or ”no” to indicate whether they were correct.
Facebook’s database is developing rapidly. It is conceivable that within a few years a user could point their iPhone at someone on the street and pull up a list of possible identity matches within seconds. (In theory, Google could do much the same, though Google’s Eric Schmidt has come out against the use of his company’s platform for facial recognition and mobile tracking.)
For now, Facebook only auto-suggests the identities of people who are among your friends. Still, the company will possess the information to identify people on a broad scale, both on the web and out on the street – ”much more than any government agency”, in Acquisti’s estimation. Only a company’s concern for an individual’s privacy will stand in the way.