This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.
A new study looks at
privacy in a world where computers can increasingly recognize faces in a crowd
or online. Alessandro Acquisti at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, led the study.
Professor Acquisti says social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn represent
some of the world's largest databases of identities. He sees increasing threats
to privacy in facial recognition software and cloud computing -- the ability to
store huge amounts of information in data centers.
ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: "The convergence of all these technologies -- face
recognition, social networks, cloud computing -- and all these advances in
statistical re-identification techniques and data mining are creating this world
where you can blend together online and offline data. You can start from an
anonymous face and end up with sensitive inferences about that person.”
Recognition systems measure things like the size and position of a nose, the
distance between the eyes and the shape of cheekbones. The software compares
lots of images to try to identify the person. This is what the professor means
by "statistical re-identification techniques."
Facial recognition programs are used in police and security operations. But
the software is increasingly popular in other uses, including social media sites.
For the study, the Carnegie Mellon team used software from Pittsburg Pattern
Recognition, or PittPat. Google bought that company last month. The software can
recognize faces in photos and videos.
The researchers did three experiments. First, they collected profile photos
from a dating website. Its users try to protect their privacy by not listing
their real name. But comparing their photos to pictures on Facebook identified
one out of ten people.
In the second experiment, the Carnegie Mellon researchers asked permission to
take pictures of students on campus. They compared these to photos on Facebook.
This time they correctly identified one-third of the students.
In the third experiment, they tried to see how much they could learn about
people just from a photo. They found not only names but birthdates, personal
interests and even locations, when people listed them. And Professor Acquisti
says the technology is only improving.
ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: “Because face recognizers keep improving accuracy,
because cloud computing keeps offering more power, and because more and more
images of ourselves are going to be online, we are getting really close to this
future where what we did as a proof of concept will be possible to do by anyone
on a massive scale.”
In June, Facebook launched a facial recognition system to help users "tag" or
list the names of people in photos. Germany last month became the first country
to declare this software an illegal violation of privacy.
And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms.
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