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
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
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
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."
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.