Privacy and mobile facial recognition

I just finished teaching my class on “Current Issues in Privacy.” Northwestern students are incredibly smart and it is always a joy to work with them. Of course one of the big issues is privacy on Facebook, but I will save that one for later. Instead, I would like to talk about a technology that one of our groups discussed in their final project – mobile face recognition. It seems there is an app for Android phones (Recognizr) that lets to snap a picture of someone and have it pair up that picture through facial recognition software with publicly available contact information. It will probably be available for iPhones soon.

So when you go to a bar, you do not have to ask the cute girl or handsome man for their contact information – just snap a picture with your smartphone and it will give their phone number, street address, email address, etc. to you. Nevermind that they did not want to give you their number. Or nevermind they thought you were a jerk and would have given you a fake number. Nevermind consent of any sort, they can just take the picture of you from a range that you never even see them doing it. It is one thing in classic privacy theory to expose yourself in public and it is another that anyone with common technology can use database aggregation (which is what these lookups are called) in new and possibly scary ways. It is one thing for the police to be able to pull you over and verify the picture on your driver’s license. It is another for anyone on the street to be able to get this type of information. So I guess we just need to get over the idea of privacy.

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