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An overlay depicts how facial recognition software pinpoints certain features and compares them to a database. The distance between the eyes and the shape of the cheekbone can be used to determine characteristics like sex and age. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
An overlay depicts how facial recognition software pinpoints certain features and compares them to a database. The distance between the eyes and the shape of the cheekbone can be used to determine characteristics like sex and age. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

Technology

Facial-recognition technology needs limits, privacy advocates warn Add to ...

Facebook declined to be interviewed about the technology, though a public-relations representative explained that the company doesn't like the term "facial recognition" - it prefers "Tag Suggestions" - and considers the feature to be "opt-in," since it only works on photos that have been newly uploaded and users can disable the function should they not wish to be identified.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada's office - whose previous tangles with Facebook prompted the company to improve its privacy practices - has also confirmed its interest, though it's not actively investigating at the moment.

So far, other online giants have been more circumspect. Apple and Google - two companies with access to vast quantities of user data - have both developed or acquired facial-recognition technology, but so far have only applied it to software, like iPhoto or Picasa, that scans users' private photo albums, not the open Internet.

Google actually built a working facial-recognition search engine into its "Google Goggles" mobile phone app, which would let users take a photo of someone's face and use Google's vast database to match it to other information. However, the company decided not to release it, citing privacy concerns.

"People could use this stuff in a very, very bad way as well as in a good way," Google chairman Eric Schmidt told a conference last month.

View to a sale

Facial detection and recognition are hardly confined to the Internet. These technologies are also moving offline, into your home, workplace and neighbourhood.

Computer-vision technology is already critical to iWatchLife. The Ottawa-based company sells smart surveillance systems: Not only do cameras keep an eye on the home, but computers pay attention to what's going on in the scene, alerting homeowners should it recognize certain events.

"My wife and I went away for the weekend," says Charles Black, the president and CEO of iWatchLife. "I've got two teenage daughters. I told my system to let me know if more than ten people walk into the house."

Now, the company is working on adding a facial-recognition component to its products. It could work as an access-control product for small businesses - allowing only certain people into a stockroom, for instance. And it could be used by security-conscious families, too.

"You don't want to be Big Brother, but at the same time, if your kid is coming home from school, you want to make sure they're home safe," says Robert Laganière, an engineering professor at the University of Ottawa and iWatchLife's chief scientist.

Your front door is just the beginning. Face-sensitive cameras will soon be populating malls and upscale retail outlets, picking out customers and tailoring displays to suit them. Intel, the chip-making giant, is working on facial-detection systems that don't identify customers so much as profile them.

Using software developed by Markham, Ont.-based CognoVision (which Intel acquired late last year), a camera mounted on a large LCD screen watches for faces that come within four to six metres. The screen can switch ads depending on the kind of face that walks by. The captured images are deleted and the individual customers are never identified - a system that Ms. Cavoukian lauds for ensuring privacy by its design.

In addition to boosting sales, the system also collects information for retailers. By measuring who's looking at the screen, and for how long, the system can gauge the effectiveness of different pitches. "For a retailer, that's incredibly powerful information," says Christopher O'Malley, director of retail marketing with Intel's Embedded and Communications Group. The technology has already been piloted and Intel says it plans to announce retail deployments soon.

Facial-recognition technology isn't perfect yet. Academics say it still struggles with low-resolution or grainy photographs and can still be thrown off by facial changes like glasses or a beard. Cheap facial-recognition systems can even be fooled by holding a picture up to the camera.

But algorithms are getting smarter, learning, for instance, to stitch together multiple frames of grainy video-camera footage into a recognizable image. What's more, "learning" software that trains itself to recognize a face has a huge advantage if it can draw on a big database of names and faces to use as a reference. Once upon a time, only institutions like governments and insurance agencies maintained such files.

Times, though, have changed. Processing power is cheap, cameras are everywhere and now facial-recognition software has access to a certain book of 750 million faces to learn from. Facial recognition isn't just for Big Brother any more; it's for little brother too. Say cheese.

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