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Google recently acquired top facial recognition firm PittPatt. The company's applications can be used to scour the internet and identify you within 60 seconds.  (Source: PittPatt)

Thanks to the acquisition Google may soon be able to deploy real world targeted advertisements like those depicted in Minority Report. The advertisements could identify you, check your credit, and target ads at you based on your finances and interests.  (Source: Fox/Dreamworks)
Google and Carnegie Mellon University have created a system capable of alarming invasions of privacy

The application's name is PittPatt and it allows a complete stranger to find your identity -- your real identity -- in under 60 seconds.  Here's how it works.  A client code calls the PittPatt interface with a picture it's taken.  PittPatt jumps online and compares that picture to millions of images in Facebook and in Google Inc.'s (GOOG) image search, using advanced facial recognition technology.  And within 60 seconds, it can identify an individual.

The technology is more than a little creepy.  It seems straight out of futurist thriller flick The Minority Report, where Tom Cruise's character is assailed by advertising billboards that ID him by retinal scans.  In the movie Cruise solves this problem by replacing his eyeballs.  In real life it won't be that simple (hint: you might need facial modification).

PittPatt was a Carnegie Mellon University research project, which spun off into a company post 9/11.  At the time, U.S. intelligence was obsessed with using advanced facial recognition to identify terrorists.  So the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) poured millions into PittPatt.  

And it worked.  PittPatt's proprietary technology can spot faces even when people wear sunglasses, hats, or masks.  While that sounds like a bank robber's worst nightmare, it's also alarming news for law abiding folks.

Now the technology is in the hands of advertising giant Google.  Google purchased the company for an undisclosed price in July.

PittPatt announced on its website, "Joining Google is the next thrilling step in a journey that began with research at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in the 1990s and continued with the launching of Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition (PittPatt) in 2004."

"We've worked hard to advance the research and technology in many important ways and have seen our technology come to life in some very interesting products. At Google, computer vision technology is already at the core of many existing products (such as Image Search, YouTube, Picasa, and Goggles), so it's a natural fit to join Google and bring the benefits of our research and technology to a wider audience. We will continue to tap the potential of computer vision in applications that range from simple photo organization to complex video and mobile applications."

Just two months prior it had been all denials and winks when Google was confronted with a CNN story which had a Google engineer on record stating that facial recognition technology was being developed to add to Google Goggles.  Stated Google at the time, "As we've said for more than a year, we will not add facial recognition to Goggles unless we have strong privacy protections in place. We're still working on them. We have nothing to announce at this time."

Alessandro Acquisti, Ph.D, a researcher and instructor still at Carnegie Mellon has designed an iPhone app that functions as a front end for PittPatt's facial recognition technology.  As mentioned, it can identify strangers Facebook profiles with startling accuracy.

And that's not all it can do.  It also incorporates searches of public databases that allows it to make a good guess at your social security number.  If it knows your date of birth (e.g. if your Facebook profile is public), there's a good chance it can ID your social security number.

Of course, the app relies on finding publicly available pictures of you online.  You can always put a picture of something other than your face as your profile image for social networks like Facebook and Google Plus.  But given the fact that many professional positions involve media exposure and/or online corporate bios, that may not be enough to protect your privacy.

Professor Acquisiti, showed his app off to NPR.  The news service writes:

Fred Cate [a law professor and privacy guru at Indiana University] says just imagine if you were a car dealer. You could hook Acquisti's app up to your surveillance cameras, identify potential customers, then check their incomes and credit ratings while they wandered around your lot.

Alessandro Acquisti has no plans to sell his app or make it public. In fact, the prospect of that horrifies him. But Cate thinks the commercial pressure to use technology like this will be intense. And some of the biggest companies in America agree. PittPatt was just bought by Google. But its technology only exists because of investments the government made in research in the wake of the attacks 10 years ago.

The app isn't publicly available.  And stalkers and frauds still have to resort to conventional methods like climbing in your window, sifting through your mail, or sending you phishing emails.

But if there's one take home message of the Google-PittPatt deal, it's the revelation that we're approaching an era where it will be incredibly difficult to protect one's privacy and finances.  When and if this technology hits the public it will shake both the social and financial foundations of society and no one can honestly say exactly what the end result will be.

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By Joz on 9/9/2011 10:23:53 AM , Rating: 5
*Searches for self on Google*

Win for me, I do not exist.

*Searches for self on Facebook*

Win for me, I still don't exist.

(or on myspace, or other social networks.)

RE: hmmm
By Dr of crap on 9/9/2011 10:39:20 AM , Rating: 2
Yea I was going to post the very same thing!

I don't, and will not set up a place online where I spill all my info into. For WHAT?

It called common sense.
Don't give out info and you won't have privacy issues!

Next story, please.

RE: hmmm
By JasonMick on 9/9/2011 12:13:54 PM , Rating: 3
Yea I was going to post the very same thing!

I don't, and will not set up a place online where I spill all my info into. For WHAT?

It called common sense.
Don't give out info and you won't have privacy issues!

Next story, please.

You'll be safe... until your security ignorant wife/teenager posts your family pictures up online...

(Okay I suppose a few people have security savvy spouses/SOs or children, but most non technophiles are pretty ignorant of such things...)

(Or if you are unmarried and live by yourself, perhaps your claim is fair....)

RE: hmmm
By MrTeal on 9/9/2011 10:51:46 AM , Rating: 4
Searching for my name on google returns 45 million hits.

I'm a busy boy.

RE: hmmm
By sleepeeg3 on 9/9/2011 12:18:38 PM , Rating: 2
Your name is "The Hedgehog"?

RE: hmmm
By AnnihilatorX on 9/10/2011 5:37:44 PM , Rating: 2
John is that you?

RE: hmmm
By Kiffberet on 9/12/2011 8:55:51 AM , Rating: 3
This facial recogntion technology has been around for quite a few years, so it's not surprising someone's using it to trawl the net.

I use Picasa (owned by Google I think) to put photos on the web for friends to view and I was amazed when Picasa automatically started putting all my friends faces together from all the different photos on my computer that I'd taken over the last 10 years. All I had to do was puts names to about 30 faceand Picasa can now tell me every single photo with that person in. Very impressive and only a handful were wrong (usualy those with sun glasses or the photo slightly obscured).

The technology could easily be used to analyse faces on live CCTV footage. All it needs is someone to link all the CCTV up across the country, and everyone can be tracked.

(whose to say it hasn't already been done...)

RE: hmmm
By bigdawg1988 on 9/13/2011 11:29:23 AM , Rating: 2
(whose to say it hasn't already been done...)

Well thank you very much for ruining my day!!

RE: hmmm
By polybios on 9/9/2011 11:37:58 AM , Rating: 2
The thing is, it doesn't matter if you have facebook profile or not. Any friend of you with facebook profile can tag you in photos and you are done. And even if you weren't tagged, I can take a photo of you and search the whole internet for other photos of you with face matching.

RE: hmmm
By FITCamaro on 9/9/2011 12:54:14 PM , Rating: 2
Actually you can stop people from tagging you. Or just have it notify you.

RE: hmmm
By polybios on 9/9/2011 12:59:28 PM , Rating: 3
Maybe you can stop people from tagging you as a FB user, but they can still tag you as a generic person (without link to profile), can't they?

RE: hmmm
By MrBlastman on 9/9/2011 11:41:25 AM , Rating: 2
This is all an exemplary reason why you don't:

a. Use Social Networking
b. Use real info online
c. Have multiple email addresses
d. Post photo albums online in any form for others to see


These freedoms come with a price. A price that is far, far too steep.

RE: hmmm
By FITCamaro on 9/9/2011 12:53:41 PM , Rating: 1
My name comes up. But no photos.

RE: hmmm
By fuzzlefizz on 9/9/2011 1:43:54 PM , Rating: 3
*Searches for Joz on Dailytech*

Win for me, Joz exists.

RE: hmmm
By Joz on 9/9/2011 2:16:12 PM , Rating: 2
Not my real name.

I win.

RE: hmmm
By polybios on 9/10/2011 3:31:26 AM , Rating: 4
this is what I have found about you in one hour:
gender: male
real name: Scott
age: 22 - 25
location: USA
birthday: May 19
your table tennis racket:
your dog:
your eyes:

I win.

RE: hmmm
By Captain Orgazmo on 9/10/2011 5:09:10 PM , Rating: 2
Glad I use a different handle on every site, wouldn't want people seeing my private ping-pong equipment...

RE: hmmm
By tastyratz on 9/12/2011 4:19:00 PM , Rating: 2
A man's choice in table sports is a private indulgence indeed. Think of the evil google could do knowing this!

actually I would hate for that to be the ONLY information that turned up. Everywhere I go with smart advertising they would be trying to sell me balls. balls get old fast, and nobody likes old balls.

RE: hmmm
By rabbitslayer21 on 9/12/2011 4:34:56 PM , Rating: 2
Ooh! Ooh! Do me next!

RE: hmmm
By polybios on 9/13/2011 3:55:47 AM , Rating: 2
Alex, you have several social network's profiles, no challenge...

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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