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Facial recognition systems plus smartphones may spell end of anonymity

Facial recognition systems plus smartphones may spell end of anonymity

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Carnegie-Mellon University researchers warn that we all may be recognizable on the street by anyone with a smartphone and Internet connection. Is this a good thing?

Is anonymity dead?  Is this a good thing?

Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University warn that it is possible to identify strangers and gain their personal information — perhaps even their social security numbers — by using face recognition software and social media profiles.

The study's results, to be presented today at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, suggest that the time is near when people on the street will be identifiable with common consumer technologies such as smartphones and the Internet.

As Carnegie Mellon University's Alessandro Acquisti put it:

"A person's face is the veritable link between her offline and online identities. When we share tagged photos of ourselves online, it becomes possible for others to link our face to our names in situations where we would normally expect anonymity."

Acquisti said his research team combined three technologies — an off-the-shelf face recognizer, cloud computing and publicly available information from social network sites — to identify individuals online and offline in the physical world.

There's been an app for that around for more than a year -- Swedish company The Astonishing Tribe released a smartphone app called Recognizr that matches faces with social media details. Fortunately, TAT says, Recognizr facial recognition only works when both users have personally subscribed to the service.

Acquisti, however, worries that future apps from vendors will not have such an opt-in option. The results of his team's experiments foreshadow a future when we all may be recognizable on the street — not just by friends or government agencies using sophisticated devices, but by anyone with a smartphone and Internet connection.

The team ran three experiments and developed one mobile phone application. In one experiment, Acquisti's team identified individuals on a popular online dating site where members protect their privacy through pseudonyms. In a second experiment, they identified students walking on campus — based on their profile photos on Facebook. In a third experiment, the research team predicted personal interests and, in some cases, even the Social Security numbers of the students, beginning with only a photo of their faces.

Carnegie Mellon researchers also built a smartphone application to demonstrate the ability of making the same sensitive inferences in real-time. In an example of "augmented reality," the application uses offline and online data to overlay personal and private information over the target's face on the device's screen.

Cloud computing will continue to improve performance times at cheaper prices, and online people-tagging and face recognition software will continue to provide more means of identification.

Facial recognition systems are already seeing adoption within law enforcement and anti-terrorism circles. Are there business applications? Interactions at conferences may be one potential application. Hospitals represent another area, as medical and emergency professionals may be able to identify incoming patients. But employing facial recognition systems to identify customers who walk into a store may be too creepy.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure