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Will Privacy Concerns Spawn the Faceless Book?

Will Privacy Concerns Spawn the Faceless Book?

It doesn't take much to put together a pretty clear profile of a stranger walking down the street -- just a snapshot, some facial recognition software, and the addition of readily available personal data on the Web, according to a Carnegie Mellon research team. As the potential for intrusions on privacy grows, people who want to protect their private lives may become a lot more cautious about uploading profile pictures.

By Rob Spiegel
08/02/11 12:40 PM PT

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed a system that combines facial recognition technology with social networking data and information drawn from other sources, raising new privacy concerns. The research team, led by Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology and public policy, will present its findings in full at Black Hat, a security conference to be held in Las Vegas later this week.

Using facial recognition software with other sources of data makes it possible to identify strangers and gain substantial personal information about them, the researchers said -- in some cases, even their Social Security numbers.

The research team combined three technologies to identify individuals online and in the physical world: an off-the-shelf face recognizer, cloud computing and publicly available information from social networking sites. Since these technologies are also accessible by end-users, the results foreshadow a future where anyone can be identified by a smartphone with an Internet connection, the researchers suggested.

Your Face, Your Number

The team ran three experiments and designed a mobile phone app. The first experiment identified individuals on a popular online dating site where members protect privacy by using pseudonyms. The second experiment identified students walking on campus based on Facebook profile photos. In the third experiment, the research team predicted personal interests and, in some cases, Social Security numbers, beginning with just a photo of a face.

Carnegie Mellon built a smartphone app to show how the same sensitive data inferences can be made in real-time. The app is an example of "augmented reality" that uses offline and online sources to overlay personal and private data over a target's face. Cloud computing will improve performance times, according to the researchers, and facial recognition software will continue to provide new means of identification.

The Carnegie Mellon team did not respond to the E-Commerce Times' request for comments by press time.

The Brave New World of Facial Identification

Internet users are usually identified by a user name or email and password combo, but facial recognition technology could completely change the way users are identified digitally.

"Facebook becomes the universal translator of personal data," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld. "It's interesting because personal computing is all about levels of abstraction. As people's lives online have evolved, the connections online become more tangential, more tenuous. There are few ways besides passwords to identify yourself online. When you sign on to a website and use a password, they believe you are who you are because you used the password. But that might not be the case."

Facial recognition technology has reached new heights of functionality and availability, but Web surfers typically are not much concerned about the increasing threats of privacy intrusion.

"The Web has become so much a part of people's lives, people feel safe -- but they really are not safe," said King. "The Carnegie Mellon study suggests that if you leave your curtains open, a lot of people can find out some interesting things about how you live your life. That can lead to security intrusions and can affect your life. The Carnegie Mellon reports show face recognition software is taking potential intrusion to a new extreme."

Caring for Your Online Data

Simple personal details can become a gateway to privacy intrusions and identity theft. A picture here, dating-site info there, and pretty soon an entire personal profile comes to life.

"The Carnegie Mellon study focused on social networks, but any photo that has your name attached to it could be data-mined and used to identify you using today's facial recognition software," Amber N. Yoo, director of communications at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, told TechNewsWorld. "We've always stressed the importance of restricting the information you make public on the Internet, especially your birthday, age and place of birth."

The Carnegie Mellon study demonstrates why it is so important to protect your personal information online.

For those who want to protect themselves, "use a photo NOT of you as your profile photo," Yoo suggested. Instead, post "a favorite landscape from your recent vacation, a pet or an avatar."


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