Google Can't Make Up Its Mind About Facial Recognition

If the technology is too creepy for Google, why did they apply for a patent?

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Yesterday, Google executive Eric Schmidt spoke to a captivated crowd about privacy at the company's "Big Tent" conference on internet privacy in London yesterday. Calling the "surprising accuracy" of new facial recognition technology "very concerning," Schmidt said it was "unlikely" that Google would develop a database with the ability to recognize people's faces. "Some company is going to cross that line," he added.

But according to at least two patent applications, one made public today, one in February, Google itself was very much looking into crossing the line, at one point. Teams of engineers in Mountain View appears to have filed at least two patent applications for facial recognition technology on behalf of Google Inc. The first application for a "Facial Recognition with Social Networking Aiding" went to the World International Property Organization on August 6, 2010. The application's abstract describes a "facial recognition search system" that essentially scans images for the faces of your friends and returns the matches. Facebook has already released a feature that notices faces in photos and is rumored to be developing technology similar to what Google's patent describes.

The other application is a little tougher to describe. With the title "Automatically Mining Person Models of Celebrities for Visual Search Applications " the August 19, 2010 application sent to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office describes "methods and systems for automated identification of celebrity face images" as well as the ability to search by celebrity. In other words, the new technology basically powers a supercharged, robotic, internet paparazzi using Google's algorithms as "biometric" scanners. Biometrics refers to the type of technology used top identify and verify people based on their characteristics--it's the methodical guts that powers fingerprint readers and surveillance software. (Also, those casual retina scanners in Minority Report.) Ostensibly, once the database is fully developed, one would be able not only to search for celebrity images tagged as such but every image available containing that person. The database is already 1,000 celebrities strong and includes celebrities like Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Bristol Palin and Prince Harry.

Our lack of a computer science degree nothwithstanding, it certainly sounds like Google has made considerable investment in facial recognition technology. Of course, these were filed a while ago, it's possible Schmidt's more recent declaration indicates a new direction, and in any event Schmidt recently stepped down as CEO, being replaced with founder Larry Page, so there's a lot to sort out here.

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