By Mark Milian
Google is working on a mobile application that would allow users to snap pictures of people’s faces in order to access their personal information, a director for the project said this week.
In order to be identified by the software, people would have to check a box agreeing to give Google permission to access their pictures and profile information, said Hartmut Neven, the Google engineering director for image-recognition development.
Google’s Profiles product includes a user’s name, phone number and e-mail address. Google has not said what personal data might be displayed once a person is identified by its facial-recognition system.
“We recognize that Google has to be extra careful when it comes to these [privacy] issues,” Neven told CNN in an exclusive interview. “Face recognition we will bring out once we have acceptable privacy models in place.”
While Google has begun to establish how the privacy features would work, Neven did not say when the company intends to release the product, and a Google spokesman said there is not a release timeline.
The technology wouldn’t necessarily be rolled out in a separate app, a Google spokesman said. Instead, facial recognition could be issued as an update to an existing Google tool, such as its image search engine.
Google has had the technical capabilities to implement this type of search engine for years.
Just as Google has crawled trillions of Web pages to deliver results for traditional search queries, the system could be programmed to associate pictures publicly available on Facebook, Flickr and other photo-sharing sites with a person’s name, Neven said. “That we could do today,” he said.
But those efforts had frequently stalled internally because of concerns within Google about how privacy advocates might receive the product, he said.
Neven Vision specialized in object and facial recognition development. The object-related programs are reflected in an image search engine, called Goggles. The face-recognition technology was incorporated into Picasa, Google’s photo-sharing service, helping the software recognize friends and family members in your computer’s photo library.
In 2009, Google acquired a company called Like.com, which specialized in searching product images but also did work in interpreting pictures of people. Google has also filed for patents in the area of facial recognition.
As Google’s size and clout grow, so does the chorus of critics who say the company frequently encroaches on people’s privacy. Over the years, Google has made various missteps.
The company agreed to pay $8.5 million last year in a legal settlement over grievances that its Buzz social-networking service published the names of people with whom Gmail users regularly communicated. Google quickly fixed the problem, but its repercussions are still being felt: On Wednesday, Google announced it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to receive an independent review of privacy procedures once every two years.
Google also faces numerous inquiries from governments regarding information collected by its Street View vans. Developers who report to Neven work on aspects of that street-level photography initiative — mainly privacy-minded features such as the automatic blurring of faces and license plates, he said.
Google also is concerned about the legal implications of facial recognition. Even during trials among its own employees, Google has taken steps to ensure testers have explicitly agreed on record to try out the service.
“Online, people don’t think about the privacy concerns; they think about the fun activities they’re doing,” said Karen North, director of a University of Southern California program that studies online privacy. “They’re going to have to figure out a way where people who like the ease and fun of some of these technologies … online don’t feel burned at any given point. Because once they feel burned, they’ll opt out.”