The facial recognition revolution
(Getty Images)
August 11th, 2011
12:00 PM ET

The facial recognition revolution

Editor's Note: Jan Chipchase is Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at frog, a global innovation firm. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square. His Twitter handle is @janchip.

By Jan Chipchase - Special to CNN

The revolution is right here in front of us; we just can’t see it yet.

Less than a decade ago, while conducting research into how people use mobile technology around the globe, there would come a point where I’d take out my camera and start documenting. The act of taking a photo was very much a one-way street – me documenting the interviewee.

Then, about four years ago, the relationship started to shift. Pretty much anywhere in the world when I took out my camera, people would then delve into pockets and bags (and occasionally sleeves) and pull out a camera phone and start to document me documenting them. Today, they still take the photo, but what is taken is far more likely to be shared online.

The next step in this evolution - or should I say revolution - will soon be upon us with the mainstreaming of facial recognition technology, which through smartphones will literally be in the palm of your hand. The ability to identify someone at a moment's notice by snapping a photo of him or her, to trigger an immediate influx of data about the person behind the face, will forever change the world. 

Who wouldn't want to know more about the people in the world around them?

Imagine being able to pull up a résumé, Facebook profile, tax records and vital statistics just by taking a photograph. Consider how this will change social interaction and dynamics in public spaces - on the streets, at a conference, on campus, at an anti-government protest, in the personal care aisle of your local supermarket and in nightclubs.

Each space has its own dynamic and its own set of motivations. Your face will become the starting point for a search query about you. And your eyes, once the windows through which you saw the world, will become the entry point to the parts of your life that are intentionally or otherwise out there.

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The technology is already here, and it’s not just in the form of government agencies on the lookout for terrorists or criminals. There exist fun mobile-phone apps like FaceDouble that analyze faces and compare them to those of celebrities, a contemporary parlor trick fueled by algorithms and some retailers are building up profiles of consumer's shopping behaviors via one-way cameras in shop displays.

In addition, with each photo and detail about your life you're posting online, you're adding to a rich, constantly updated dataset: Who in your social network has "checked in" to the same restaurants via foursquare; friends tagging you in a photo as you roll up to a bar; your geo-tagged Instagram photos.

These are the building blocks that the facial-recognition software can cross-reference, building a profile of you based not only what you write or has been written about you, but about what you look like and have looked like. Even if you don’t state your ethnic background anywhere on LinkedIn  or whether you are married with children, a scan of your photos and other people's photos featuring you will make it far easier to deduce.

You could argue that this is no big deal – that all of these pieces of information are out there, that it is an evolution of what has gone on before. True. But your and other people's ability to connect the dots in near-time will lay bare many of the white lies that we tell to smooth interactions - age, marital status, job title, our very purpose for being there, then - whether you're running street research in Afghanistan or writing a review of your local restaurant.

For a while you'll lament the camera phone that’s literally in-your-face. But over time the social etiquette for checking each other out and the form factors of doing so will evolve to be less intrusive.

Anyway, all it takes is one person in any given environment to be inquisitive about your presence for everyone who has a passing interest to maintain an awareness - and some of this will be tied to higher resolution, fixed infrastructure.

Check Out: More from the "Global Innovation Showcase" created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

At the same time, the rise of facial recognition will enable a new wave of innovation and trigger new forms of content generation. Just as sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have built businesses around user comments, new players will emerge that will enable comments on how people look and behave in real time; think Hot-or-Not or Do's and Don'ts, but with immediate analysis.

There will be winners and losers. Some of the future facial-recognition startups will leverage real-world physicality to become self-sustaining businesses.

Imagine a mash-up between an affiliate program like Amazon’s that lets individuals refer products to others online and make a cut of sales, and a service that identifies brands and products via mobile phone photos snapped in real-time, like Snaptell (also owned by Amazon’s subsidiary A9). Then imagine who would want to sell ads next to queries into a photograph of you, showing you with an identifiable product. Who will have the rights to generate revenue from being associated with your image?

Yet even if you decided to unplug completely from online life, or threw away your mobile phone, your world is still about to change. As soon as September, police forces in a number of states across the U.S. are planning to begin using specially equipped iPhones that can scan a suspect’s face from as far as five feet away.

The device will then search a database to possibly match the likeness with photos of criminals. This could be seen as an efficient way to speed up law enforcement, of course. Or is it a violation of privacy? That depends on how we redefine “privacy” as facial recognition software becomes ubiquitous.

It isn’t new; early versions first surfaced in computer labs in the 1960s.  The appropriately named Facebook, currently under fire from privacy groups including the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C. and the Information Commissioner’s Office of Britain for allowing facial-recognition software to identify people on the social networking site by default, isn’t the only innovative company to focus on facial recognition technology.

Although Google admitted to scrapping the launch of its own facial-recognition tool, the company recently acquired PittPatt, a Pittsburgh-based outfit specializing in this type of software. And Apple’s next operating system for phones, iOS 5, will likely include sophisticated face detection capabilities that will be open to endless application developers when it debuts this fall. In fact, facial recognition software is already available in Apple’s existing Photo Booth application.

Face it: it’s here to stay. To deny this would be to deny other facts of life in the Internet age, like complaining that print publications are growing less popular each day, or that people are increasingly abandoning landlines in favor of cell phones that constantly drop calls.

We will have to consider how we write and re-write our personal histories. It will be easier than ever to look up information about someone — not only in person, but also in other photos and videos.

Do you have an embarrassing portfolio of bikini-modeling photos or videos from your youth that you hope no one will ever believe are you? It will be easier to identify you, even dozens of years into the future. Facial recognition software is already quite accurate in measuring unchanging and unique ratios between facial features that identify you as you. It's like a fingerprint. Imagine the types of consultants and software that will emerge to help people find and delete or alter their faces in existing photographic materials.

The distance between who you are and who you might be is closing.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jan Chipchase.

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Topics: Innovation • Technology

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