The Google CNN Facial Recognition Flap
Chris Davies of Slashgear does some very good reporting of a story that has been brewing for a day or two. The story is about a simmering battle between Google and CNN. CNN interviewed Google engineer Hartmut Neven about technology that would allow facial recognition via Android phones using Google Goggles. The piece ran in a week where Google had been slapped by the FCC over the privacy debacle surrounding the launch of Buzz and that Microsoft went to the EU to seeing antitrust action against Google. To say Google’s guardians were slightly sensitive would be an understatement and the denials quickly followed suit.
The difficulty Google seems to have is that the interview was pre-arranged (this wasn’t an Eric Schmidt foot-in-mouth slip-up) and apparently it is all on tape, so that’s why most of the Googlers aren’t too fond of CNN at the moment.
But beyond the flap where does this point us. By us I mean those who might be concerned about the privacy issues that are at the root of the discussion. I think it is safe to say that the technology exists for facial recognition. I think that’s already on the record somewhere before this latest episode. Google and Facebook have both alluded to the fact that they can do things that would probably make even the most laissiez-faire privacy folks snap to attention. But we live in a world that is inherently skeptical when it comes to privacy issues on some fronts and blithely apathetic about it when it comes to others. Technology as we know can be used for good and for bad. There are bad actors in any field of human endeavor just as there are those who see technological advances as helping making life better. Take a decidedly non-Internet issue also in the news of late. The technology exists for law enforcement to use cameras and radar so that any driver going over the speed limit can be identified and mailed a ticket. Some communities are up in arms about this as it begins to roll out. Some municipalities are thrilled at the prospect of all the revenue it could generate. There are passionate debates just beginning about the issue and I’m guessing it will eventually end up in the courts. These kind of issues will always be a tug-of-war in my view.
Quite honestly I think the scrutiny that Google is under (as well as that of other companies like Facebook, although that at the moment is more from users than it is any regulatory body) is as healthy as the technological exploration that pushes the envelope. That tension needs to always be there even though it can be argued that we’ve already given up too much of the same personnel info that some seem so concerned about prior to this becoming an Internet issue. Just ask your bank or your supermarket how much they’ve made from selling your data. In my own view of the privacy thing, I think that unless your really don’t participate in society and the economy, the horse left the barn on that issue long ago when most weren’t paying attention. The Internet just makes the potential abuse of privacy issues easier to focus on.
This latest episode most likely will end up in the mix of a discussion about privacy going forward. That’s a good thing. But sooner or later some one or some company is going to not be able to resist the fact that there is new money to be made with technology that already exists but can’t be unleashed yet because of privacy fears. If nothing else in this Internet age we’ve learned that the slow pace of governments plays to the advantage of the technologists who push the envelope. They know that just like a photo on the Internet, once it is out there, it is tough to call it back.
We certainly live in fascinating times.