I recognize you! Automatically! All your old pictures (and other people’s )!

I have been fascinated by the way that new social technology is in the cusp of dramatically changing human relationships and interactions. I am particularly interested in notions of trust – and mistrust.

One technology I have been following has been facial recognition technology. This has profound implications in the way we portray ourselves as individuals, and how we are losing control of our own capability of controlling our own visual identity.

Picassa facial recognition software

Picassa facial recognition software

Let me explain…

In our social technology, many of us take pictures and share them on sites like Flickr, SmugMug, Picassa and so on. Most of the time we are selective: who we allow to see our pictures, which pictures we upload. We are even more selective at an early stage in photos: we decide which pictures we should take in the moment, and which we might delete (blur, embarrassement, etc).

Some people deliberately aim to get their pictures taken and shared on the Internet

Some people deliberately aim to get their pictures taken and shared on the Internet

At the same time, look around you the next time you are at an event, or something interesting is happening. You, shockingly, are not the only person with a camera. Pretty much everyone these days has a camera – a camera-phone – with them at all times. And over the last couple of years it has become more than socially acceptable to use them – almost at all times. Compare that to a few years ago when people looked at you as though you were trying to pee behind a bush.

OK, following that trend then. Everyone is uploading all pictures more and more. And more people are uploading pictures ‘in the clear’, without any security or permissions to the internet. And whilst they as individuals may be protective of their own self-image, what do they care about some drunken oaf trying to rescue a lost olive from some poor girl’s throat (terrible thought… but we’ve all seen it happen, at some point in our lives).

Right now, these pictures are safe as they are not tagged. They are just pixels, colors, shapes of people, but just people, like the stock pictures you might buy to make a marketing brochure.

But, let’s go back to facial recognition software. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out how easy it will be – now that the technology is largely there – to start going through pubic domain pictures, recognizing people. The code will probably be shared. Some VC backed company – with no revenue apart from a few clicks on Google AdWords – will open-source their code, and everyone will start adding these features. Tags will be added throughout the ether, and even if the original picture is untouched, the meta-tag layer will just keep on growing.

So, what might this mean?

You have created a professional image for yourself. But now, what happens in Vegas does not have to stay in Vegas. You and your buddies have sworn an oath of silence, but the girls taking pictures of you did not.

Your pictures go back through time, so even if you have just started tentatively entering into the world of social networking, there are probably going to be some older pictures of you, perhaps when you were not so wise.

Pictures are all date stamped as well. And an increasing number of people are using geolocation with their pictures.

Why would this matter? What if you are / were in a relationship and had claimed to be quietly sitting in a hotel. Meanwhile you were out partying and someone has you banged to rights, cup in one hand, perhaps someone else in the other, with a time and date stamp that would make your significant other very angry indeed.

And given the speed at which these systems are indexed and alerts firing off in all directions, you could get into a lot of trouble almost overnight – with no way of stoipping it.

There are tons of fundamental issues at stake. Who owns the image of you on someone else’s camera? The person taking the picture, if most likely to be the answer (I’ll do some research). Who controls whether the image gets tagged at all – or correctly tagged. Today (in 2009) the tagger probably does control it, but with a meta-data layer, effectively the owner of the meta-data would own it, not even the picture owner.

And what happens if you are maliciously tagged? Someone takes an image that is NOT you and tags it around the internet – automatically with this clever, pre-existing facial recognition software.

We are at a pivotal moment in mankind’s evolution – and social technology is driving and accelerating this change. It is an emergent phenomenon – no one knows what will happen next. By and large, it is going to be good, but we will have to watch out for potentially negative outcomes such as the one described above. Can it be stopped… probably not. Is that a good thing? Time and experience will tell.


  1. Who owns your image on someone else’s photos? « Mark Turrell - Changing the World of… - January 4, 2009

    […] being said, and referring back to my earlier post on the topic – it is an emergent phenomenon and it is going to happen anyway. And the good news – I […]

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