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.

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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

soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Thomas

    social networking sites have made 'social' less personal and face-to-face. Now I can get to know some w/o ever meeting them. Hooray.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
    • Sonnenglanz

      Little worse than that bro.

      August 11, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Reply


      August 13, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  2. Techjoe

    Facial recognition is very very very creepy. I do NOT want someone to suddenly grab all my info by just taking a pic of me in public. This will be bad for society

    August 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes, it's creepy! Greetings from George Orwell!

      August 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  3. Reggie

    No need to panic, we know who you are anyway

    August 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • AmericanForever

      No you don't!

      August 11, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  4. Jeff

    This tech will be abused far more than it is put to good use.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  5. jimmy K

    LOL...these propagandists could spin poison being good for you and people would believe it. Or more likely we'll hear next how TSA patdowns are really *fun* massages.

    Well this is my official F*U* to Big Brother and the elitists that seek to control us.

    "Those who sacrifice freedoms for security will end up with neither" – Ben Franklin

    August 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      Too true. Wish more people knew that quote and actually thought about it.....

      August 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Peter E

      The accurate version of that quote (same spirit though) is: Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

      August 11, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Reply
      • Mrsims

        That's it! What fools we are to disregard that warning!

        August 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  6. Sonnenglanz

    If this gets going, join my resistance movement.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  7. Jay

    Double plus good idioglossalia.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
    • Sonnenglanz

      This comment is doubleplusgood, comrade.

      August 11, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  8. AmericanForever

    Anyone who tries to do this to me is going to end up with a broken camera and possibly a black eye.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      and you in jail with a lawsuit against you.

      August 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Reply
      • AmericanForever

        Nope, no chance of that whatsoever.

        August 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  9. mightyfudge

    Warning: Use this technology on me and you'll need dental recognition to identify yourself.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
    • Jeff in Illinois

      But you won't even know it happened. Permission won't be asked for or required.
      We will be assimilated to service...someone.

      August 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  10. w w

    Some people were intrigued when the National Geographic photographer used Facial/IrisRecog to identify the "Afghan Girl" with the notable green eyes, years later when she was a woman. So why are we in such an uproar when this is Already everywhere we go? Red light cameras when we drive, security cameras in stores and sports arena; and, think that souvenir photo at the tourist venue is for your fun? Gotta know they keep it on file to match it up with ticket purchase info.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Reply
    • Off camera

      You have to be willing to go to extreme measures to protect yourself as a free and sovereign being. That means going "off" the grid, so to say. Find a nice little cave somewhere and disappear for a few years until they declare you dead...then live off the land. Extreme? Yes. Necessary? For's a matter of self preservation.

      August 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  11. Tyler

    I can't wait until this is technology is used to bring us the obnoxious personalized ads from Minority Report. It's like the future is already here!

    August 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  12. AmericanForever

    If the world does end Dec, 21st 2012, we will deserve it.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      no we won't

      August 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Reply
    • oldboldgold

      Cute movie line from the movie Contact, when asked what she would ask aliens with superior technology, Jodie Foster said I would ask them how they survived the infancy of technology. Good question.

      August 14, 2011 at 2:01 am | Reply
  13. Peter E

    Great! So now creepy stalkers can take a picture of a random woman to immediately find out where she works, what her e-mail address is, where her children go to school, etc.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      or vice versa

      August 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • SB

      That's only the beginning...what about your enemies?? This is not good. I totallly agree with AmericanForever's last statement...

      August 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
      • Sonnenglanz

        I agree. We'll all have to live a lot more carefully.

        August 11, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  14. Naked, Unblinking Eye

    People will abuse this technology to destroy lives, relationships, careers and reputations, all in the name of capitalism, profit and progress.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Reply
    • Off camera

      Welcome to the new, which is in actuality the old world order. Control, control, control until it all collapses into chaos and genocide..

      August 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      of course

      August 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • oldboldgold

      Control control control always ends up that way. You would think the control freaks would GET A LIFE.

      August 14, 2011 at 2:03 am | Reply
  15. whodathunk

    Put me on the national DO NOT SCAN list. Time to get that legislation going

    August 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      There will not be such a list

      August 11, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • whodathunk

      Like hail there won't! Government by the people, for the people

      August 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
      • Mrsims

        Like "hell" you mean. I'm all for government by the people, for the people, but we don't have that going right now in this country and may not have it ever. Sadly.

        August 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  16. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Yes we all fear for our privacy... That's why teenagers have 900+ 'friends' (i.e., people they met maybe once) on facebook where they keep posting their ever more mebarrassing pictures of themselves, and of course they like to keep stalkers at bay by posting where they are and what they are doing every other minute on twitter...

    August 11, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  17. Mrsims

    No we won't.

    August 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  18. Dan Davis

    I reckon by the time that fool-proof, positive I.D. comes along in the form of 666, there will be very few left who will even care. We are being conditioned to accept anything and everything.

    August 11, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      Too true, unfortunately.

      August 11, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  19. JOe

    Eventually people will have enough of all this tech garbage and then there will be a like this guy always assume the application of a new technology is inevitable but thats just not true. Eugenics/social darwinism was a new scientific practice in the early 1900's but it never caught on because people found it to be abhorrent; the same will happen with technologies like this that intrude

    August 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Reply
    • Mrsims

      Don't agree with you Joe. If there is profit to be made, and there is with this, along with control, it will stick around.

      August 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Reply
      • JOe

        Tell that to Louis 14 of france before the french underestimate what people will do when oppressed. We are headed to a world dominated by greedy corporations like google who want to replace human labor with robots to increase profits but eventually the whole system will implode when unemployment reaches a critical mass...then it wont matter if there is a profit to be made

        August 11, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  20. Sonnenglanz

    At the very least, we'll have to live more carefully. At the very most, this could make walking out in the street in the day "too open" for the average person.

    August 11, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  21. What Anonymous should do to protect privacy intrusions against private citizens

    Attack/disable/destroy offending websites. Failing that, attack the people responsible for the offending websites. Not physically, but in ways which they will understand as only Anonymous can.

    August 11, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  22. Jack Kieser

    Does anyone actually *think* about what they post? First of all, anonymity is *not* a right; there is *no* right to privacy, nor should there be, since we all live in a *society* (a public collection of people) for a reason. People revolted when the camera was first developed because it "took away their right to privacy", but the public eventually learned that progess entails give AND take, not just take.

    Second, the author *is* correct that progress cannot (and should not) be stopped, especially out of blind fear. So, you're worried that facial recognition will pull up information about you from the internet that you want kept private? You could be a responsible person and *not post the info online in the first place*! Don't blame Google or Microsoft for developing genuinely useful or forward-thinking technology just because *your own bad internet practices* might get you in trouble.

    Finally, secluding yourself and hiding away in a social bunker is a bad thing. We live in a society for a reason: because humans are *social*. Secluding yourself just because you fear how society will judge you is just as much a bad mark on *you* as it is on society; after all, I'm not afraid because *I have nothing to be afraid OF*. If your response to the future is global / personal isolationism, you have bigger problems that the natural advancement of technology.

    August 13, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Reply
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