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.

"I f***ing cannot play Halo 2 multiplayer. I cannot do it." -- Bungie Technical Lead Chris Butcher

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