Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Privacy: (n) 'prI-v&-sE; archaic

Everyone is excited to see the new photo sharing service Riya. Currently in alpha state, the service lets you upload photos and identify the individuals who appear in them. Riya can then take off and identify these people in all your other photos for you. How handy!

But Wired points out the scary side of this development. Once available only to government and high-tech security applications, facial recognition has now hit the web. Do you know how many photos of you appear on the web? Probably not. It's never been possible to search for them. You can Google for mention of your name, but not for appearances of your face.

What happens when that becomes possible? When you can search for photos by name -- and so can anyone else?

The service currently only searches photos uploaded to its servers. The technology could, however, be deployed across the internet, allowing people to search the web, Flickr, Tribe and Friendster photo sets, regardless of whether the owner or the person photographed wants to be identified. That's where things get interesting.

Mothers could search and find pictures of their children at a party when they were supposed to be studying at a friend's house. Insurers could search and find a photo of a customer bungee-jumping, and raise the daredevil's premiums. I predict that the tool will be invaluable to former (and future) boyfriends and girlfriends checking up on lovers.

In the analog days, when you left your house, there was always a possibility that you might run into someone who would remember what you were doing, and tell anyone who cared enough to ask. In a digital world, you do not know if someone is taking your picture -- with a camera, a webcam or a cell phone -- and the image can be stored forever and searched by people you do not know, at any point in time, without your knowledge and at little or no cost to the searcher.