Google Unfurls Facial Recognition

Summary : Google+ is going to know your friends better than you do. Or at least it will be able to pick them out of a crowd.

Google social networking site Google+ has launched "Find My Face," a feature that recognizes your friends' faces in photos and suggests you "tag" them to put the photo on their Google+ page.

Facial recognition is not new in general, nor on websites. Facebook introduced the same feature this year. But because Google on Dec. 8 made its feature opt-in only, it hasn't received the backlash that Facebook did.

"Google's maybe trying to ride on the negative sentiment around how (Facebook) treated privacy," said Brian Blau, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

When Facebook introduced its "suggested tags" in June, it made it automatic unless users opted out. Users had to manually change their settings to avoid it. That was a mistake, Blau says, because having a computer recognize your face is "very scary" for some people.

"Facial recognition technology is very personal and intimate and it touches everybody who has an opportunity to stand in front of a camera," Blau said.

Privacy organizations criticized Facebook, but they've been quiet about Google+'s new feature. Facebook executives weren't immediately available to comment.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington advocacy group, and a few partners entered a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission within a week of Facebook launching its facial-recognition feature. The FTC — by coincidence, also on Dec. 8 — heard about four hours of informational testimony.

"There's got to be transparency around how the products work — meaningful, relevant choices that give users control and security," Google's product counsel, Benjamin Petrosky, told the FTC.

Google set up two safeguards with its facial-recognition feature: First, a user must opt in to the service. Second, they get to OK tags before they're made public, says Eitan Bencuya, a Google spokesman.

Finding A Tough Balance

For Facebook and Google, which both rely heavily on selling ads based on user data, it's tough to find a balance between collecting data and offering security and privacy, Blau says.

"Today, Google is a little different (than Facebook)," Blau said. "Google today says, at least publicly, they take a different approach, that you can tell what's happening with their data."

For pro-privacy groups, the problem with facial recognition software is that it stores a lot of information about users' physical appearance. In order to "recognize" someone's photo, an algorithm looks at facial features, potentially dissecting everything from the distance between eyes to length of chin.

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