Thursday, June 21, 2012
Odds are that a database on some server somewhere in the world contains your "faceprint": a digital representation of the shapes and spacings that make your mug yours.

It's likely as unique as a fingerprint and probably far more valuable to companies and the government, both of which are investing heavily in technologies to match faces to identities.

There are obviously useful applications, like automatically tagging your buddies in a social-network photo or - on an entirely different scale - recognizing known terrorists at airports. But there are frightening ones as well: allowing authoritarian states to identify peaceful protesters, enabling companies to accrue ever greater insight into private lives or empowering criminals to dig up sensitive information about strangers.

"Facial recognition blows up assumptions that we don't wear our identities on our person; it turns our faces into name tags," said Ryan Calo, director of privacy at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. "It can be good and helpful, or it can be dangerous."

At a minimum, the technology demands a serious policy debate over the appropriate ground rules for this tool. But, of course, government officials are still grappling with online privacy questions from a decade ago, as private industry and law enforcement happily march ahead.

Just this week, Facebook officially acquired the facial recognition service, with reports putting the price tag at $55 million to $100 million. The Menlo Park social network has long licensed the technology to allow users to easily tag their friends in photos, but now presumably has greater power to leverage the tool in new ways.

In October, the technology and government publication Nextgov reported the FBI was building a nationwide facial recognition service, beginning with pilot tests this year in Michigan, Washington, Florida and North Carolina. It's one piece of a broader, $1 billion initiative to bulk up the bureau's fingerprint database with other biometric markers, including iris scans and voice recordings.

Facial recognition technology has been around for three decades. But the mobile and social revolutions are rapidly driving the field forward, as digital photos proliferate, cloud computing powers accelerate and software capabilities advance.

The more tagged photos there are of any given person - in different lighting conditions and from different angles - the more accurate the results become. In May, said it had scanned more than 41 billion photos, which could be combined with Facebook's own massive collection. Last year, the company said it had 100 billion images on file, with users adding more than 100 million tags per day...