Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The Death of Anonymity

Marketing, August 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The Death of Anonymity


Use of facial-recognition technology online has made it easier to dig up our personal information.

Most of us have seen the scene in Minority Report in which Tom Cruise is addressed personally by billboards that recognise him as he walks by For techies it's cool; for the rest of us, a little creepy.

Once the stuff of science fiction, facial-recognition software has been in use for more than 10 years. It was deployed at a US airport after the 2001 terrorist attacks, having been used to scan everyone entering the stadium at the Super Bowl earlier in the year.

Now, it's gone mobile; a company in Massachusetts has developed a device to attach to police officers' iPhones that lets them identify a person from the police database simply by taking a snap.

Every day, 100m photos of people are tagged with names on Facebook. In an attempt to accelerate this, the social network recently caused a storm by turning on facial-recognition technology, automatically suggesting names. Google's Picasa has had the technology for some time, and Apple recently acquired Polar Rose, a specialist tech company, to add this service to iPhoto.

It is even in use (with varying degrees of success) in 'fun' applications. Genealogy site MyHeritage.com has a page that compares a picture of you with its celebrity database to determine whom you most closely resemble; Jessica Lange, by 66% if you're asking. It's better than Google Goggles, however, which thought I most closely resembled a photo it held of a pink milkshake.

So the Feds have it, as does Madison Avenue. It is a recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University that gives far greater cause for concern, however, drawing on publicly held information to identify and reveal personal details of people photographed in the street.

The researchers conducted three experiments. In the first, they took anonymous profile pictures from a popular dating site and were able to put names to them using off-the-shelf software to compare these with public Facebook profiles, without even logging into Facebook.

The second was about offline-to-online identification. Taking pictures of students on campus and scanning them against Facebook, they were able to identify about a third of subjects.

Finally, having photographed and identified people, they were able to infer personal data about them using cloud computing and data mining to seek out sensitive information like Social Security numbers.

What Facebook and other services are doing is pretty harmless in itself; simply saying 'here's that person again' and helping to organise your photos. …

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