So, when will consumer tech companies get over their fears of bringing out a mainstream face-recognition app? In May, Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, told an audience at the D9 conference that the company had decided not to put out a face-recognition tool out of fear it would be misused. People at Google have indeed confirmed to me that the company has no current plans to release such a system. In fact, Google has gone out of its way to prevent face-recognition in its apps. Google Goggles—the smart-phone app that returns information from the Web when you take a photo of an everyday item—doesn't work on faces. But that's not because it can't work on faces. Google engineers have publicly admitted that, in prototypes, the system is really good at identifying faces. At a conference last year, Google engineer David Petrou said that the system is capable of identifying the face of someone who has as few as 17 other pictures online. * If there are 50 photos, Goggles will be able to get your name almost every time. "We do it well, but it's not deployed," Petrous said.
But Google won't have that luxury forever. Google reps have told me that face-recognition is something that Goggles users have asked for. This isn't surprising—such a tool would be incredibly useful. If you meet someone at a conference, you could point your camera their way and get their contact info. You could snap a group photo at your family reunion and have the pictures automatically filed by name in your photo album. Or you could think of it as Shazam for strangers—who is that woman who's always winking at you on the bus, or that creepy fellow who's leering at you from across the bar? Snap their pictures and find out. Given the demand, and given the widespread availability of the technology, it's inevitable that some company will release such a face-recognition tool very soon. And once the horse leaves the barn, it will become socially acceptable for Google and other tech giants to follow.
What about the privacy fears? What of the possibility that the police will use face-recognition systems to conduct illegal searches, or that con men will use them to find victims, or that, more fundamentally, they'll erase our last shreds of anonymity? These are all legitimate concerns, and indications of how much more annoying (and maybe even terrifying) the world will be to navigate in the face-recognition age. But pointing out the potential abuses of this software—and surely there will be a media outcry—won't make it go away. Technology marches forward and ordinary people—people who will be stalked, thrown in jail, or otherwise harassed on the basis of a facial identified—will be collateral damage.
Soon, though, we'll all learn to live with it. Etiquette and even regulations will develop around when it's OK to point your camera at someone and get her name. It's too late to turn back now: If your face and your name are online today, you've already made yourself searchable. Face-recognition systems simply turn the search on its head—instead of looking for your picture by typing in your name, I can now search for your name by snapping your picture. Don't want yourself searchable, period? You can always get off the Internet, or always leave the house wearing a funny hat and a fake nose.
Correction, July 13, 2011: This article originally misspelled David Petrou's last name, repeating a misspelling from the cited article on Tech Talk. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)