Soon Facebook Will Know Who You Are Just By Looking At You

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 19 2012 10:26 AM

Facebooked in the Crowd

108211406
Mobile face recognition technology means you can snap a photo of someone and pull up their online identity.

Photo by Karyn Poupee/AFP/Getty Images.

Chances are Facebook knows a lot about you. But can it pick you out in a crowd?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Probably not yet, but that could be on the horizon. Facebook on Monday confirmed that it is buying the five-year-old Israel-based startup Face.com, maker of facial recognition software. (AllThingsD put the pricetag at about $60 million.)

Advertisement

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, the assumption is that Facebook will improve on the service and look to unveil facial recognition for pictures you take on your mobile phone, too.

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, the prospect of Facebook building up 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 didn’t have any public Facebook photos were mostly immune to identification, says Alessandro Acquisti, the study’s lead author (though at least one subject found that 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. “They’re being smart in a way, or some could say very subtle, in enlisting users as a means of improving the accuracy of their identification,” Acquisti told me.

As Facebook’s database develops, it’s conceivable that within a few years you could see someone on the street, point your iPhone at her, and pull up a list of possible identity matches within seconds. (In theory Google could do much the same, though unlike Mark Zuckerberg, 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 and capacity to identify and track 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 the company's concern for your privacy will stand in the way.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?