A few years ago I attended an annual conference of Balkan political leaders. Middle-aged men filled the room. In the back a younger woman who could certainly have adorned the cover of a fashion magazine stood out in stark contrast.
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I wondered: who could she be? Those sitting beside me had no idea. I wondered if one day technology could identify any stranger at a moment’s notice. On that day, only by happenstance did I later learn her identify.
Soon, facial recognition programs may help instantly inform us who’s who. Some new services are offering the first steps toward that reality, capabilities that have already stirred up controversy.
Today a new service called Creepface.com allows users to enter photos to check against a database of 475,000 registered sex offenders. “Potential Dates, Babysitters, Roommates, Renters, Coaches, Teachers… Scan them all with CreepFace,” advertises the site, part of FacialNetwork.com.
The site is free and aims to make money by convincing dating sites or others with many user photos to partner with them.
Others are embracing similar technology. Last month, Arizona-based entrepreneur James Richmond introduced the JailBase iPhone app allowing users to take someone’s photo and compare it with a database of several million mug shots (there is an Android version as well). “Jailbase is the easiest and quickest way to find out if anyone you know has been arrested,” the company advertises.
Richmond says he started the site, which makes most of its money from advertising, after a relative was arrested. “JailBase was started in the beginning because I had a need to find arrest information and it just wasn’t out there,” he says. “I feel that Jailbase is providing a service, being able to search for this information, and not only that, but also adding notifications.”
He is a little wary about giving too much information about himself or having his photo published here because of the criticism often aimed at sites using mug shots. He says JailBase is different from competitors because of the photo recognition technology and the fact that it has never taken money to opt out people.
The promise of facial recognition technology excites some and worries others over privacy issues. In February Sen. Al Franken, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, responded with concern about reports that a FacialNetwork.com service called NameTag would enable Google Glass users to gain personal information about other people.
“Unlike other biometric identifiers such as iris scans and fingerprints, facial recognition is designed to operate at a distance, without the knowledge or consent of the person being identified,” Franken wrote. “Individuals cannot reasonably prevent themselves from being identified by cameras that could be anywhere—on a lamppost across the street, attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle, or, now, integrated into the eyewear of a stranger.”
Kevin Alan Tussy, founder of FacialNetwork.com, delayed the introduction of the app in response. But he says the reality of immediately pulling up a dossier based on facial analysis is around the corner. “It’s here, but it totally depends whether that person has a digital presence,” he says, adding his company harvests its photos from publicly available images.
“I think it is going to be a while, if ever, before you are going to walk into a restaurant or a club and use your augmented reality device, maybe your Google Glass or something ten generations down the line from that, and a name pops up above everyone’s head,” he says.
Instead, he imagines an opt-in service that would act much like an EZ-Pass toll for users. For example, a restaurant could scan someone as they arrive and know they have a reservation, and use your identity to settle the bill seamlessly. “You could imagine walking into a store whenever you want and looking up at a camera before you walk out the door and the light turns green and you go home,” Tussy says.
As for the blonde in the back of the room, Tussy says his service would likely be able to identify her, assuming he had access to a database of photos of Eastern Europeans. On the day I saw her, I learned her identity the old fashioned way — in person. That afternoon, I approached Bulgaria’s then prime minister to ask for an interview. With a massive barrel chest, protruding chin and bald dome Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard, presented an imposing figure. He said I would have to agree first with his chief of staff. He signaled for his aide and announced her name. It turned out to be the the blonde whom I had seen at the back of the room.
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