Web stalkers to get face search plug-in
Polar Rose dodges thorny issues
Opinion If privacy campaigners think the internet has given them stomach ulcers, they ain't seen the latest in facial recognition web search yet.
The idea is that you can snap a picture of someone with, say, your mobile phone, stick it on your computer and use it to search the web for other pictures of the same person.
Using a system being developed by Polar Rose, you might also discover who they are, where they live, and what other people have to say about them. An upcoming plug-in will allow you to do this with any image on the web.
Mikkel Thagaard, Polar's vice president of business development, told The Register he was planning to let people get at this sort of information straight over their mobile phones.
Stalkers, muggers and pointy-nosed predators of all ilks might have a field day with it. Even nosey neighbours, curtain twitchers, and weekend vigilantes should be rubbing their hands when they hear about this one.
And there are plenty of innocent applications for this sort of tool. The firm is trying to persuade dating and photo sharing web sites to incorporate its facial-search software into their services. These deals would help populate the facial database on which Polar's success is dependent. Polar requires users to add textual descriptors, wiki-style, to photos they find using its software. Those tagged images could then be used as the backbone of a contextual advertisement server, which will serve up the money to pay Polar's investors.
There is a proviso, however, which is that Polar have to generate enough interest in their products to build a database of images large enough to make this snap and tag operation work, and to satisfy the investors who gave them $5.1m of funding in November.
Nikolaj Nyholm, CEO of Polar Rose, said he had consulted privacy lawyers before setting the launch of his first product at the end of this month. We presume they gave him a big fat green light.
He said was not ignorant of the implications his software might have for privacy, but couldn't do much about it either.
As the old adage about scientific knowledge goes, once the box is open, there's no way to get the jack back in it. As technology increasingly takes a more personal role in everybody's lives, and becomes yet more widespread and conjoined, another adage is catching on, which is that you're going to lose your privacy anyway, so you might as well roll with it.
It is an idea immortalised in David Brin's 1998 book, the Transparent Society, which appears to have been adopted as something of a book of Revelations for 21st century for webheads like Nyholm, or at least as a justification for a web tool that could turn the web into the means for the people to snoop effectively on the people.
The idea is that as the state will have unprecedented means to snoop on the people, citizens should be given access to those same means in order to redress the imbalance of power.
“Can we stand living exposed to scrutiny, our secrets laid open, if in return we get flashlights of our own that we can shine on anyone who might do us harm—even the arrogant and strong?" says Brin on his website.
"Or is an illusion of privacy worth any price, even the cost of surrendering our own right to pierce the schemes of the powerful?” he asks.
Only the security services have had access to this sort of facial recognition data until now, said Brin: "If you don't democratise the technology then it will be misused."
It's a nice idea, but perhaps idealistic. It assumes that the masses can be trusted not to use surveillance powers to hunt for witches.
Polar's contribution to the debate, said Nyholm, would be telling people about the reality, which is that something of this all-seeing future is inevitable.
"We will be educating people that public information is public. If its out there its very difficult not to make it searchable," he said. Your photo, name, address, telephone number, criminal record, are all publically available, he noted.
The only thing that is inevitable, if the future does play out as Nyholm sees it, is that he'll be so rich he won't have to care.®