Are Privacy Concerns Behind Google’s Denial of Facial Recognition App?

By Katie Kindelan Comment

Google wasted no time denying a CNN report published Thursday morning that the company was close to releasing a facial recognition app that would share users’ personal information with the click of a camera. What was behind the company’s quick and forceful response?

The article, which claimed Google had the technology ready but was still considering privacy concerns, spread rapidly across the Internet and sparked a sharp debate on the implications of pairing photos with personal information.

Google immediately struck back at CNN, telling tech-focused outlets such as PCMag, SlashGear, and Android Community:

“We are NOT “introducing a mobile application” (as the CNN piece claims) and as we’ve said for over a year, we would NOT add face recognition to any app like Goggles unless there was a strong privacy model in place. A number of items “reported” in the story, such as a potential app connecting phone numbers, email addresses and other information with a person’s face, are purely speculative and are inventions of the reporter.”

The CNN story was largely based on an interview with Google’s technical lead manager for image recognition, Harmut Neven, who seemed to indicate the delay was more PR than logistics.

As reported by CNN:

Google has had the technical capabilities to implement this type of search engine for years.

Just as Google has crawled trillions of Web pages to deliver results for traditional search queries, the system could be programmed to associate pictures publicly available on Facebook, Flickr and other photo-sharing sites with a person’s name, Neven said. “That we could do today,” he said.

But those efforts had frequently stalled internally because of concerns within Google about how privacy advocates might receive the product, he said.

“People are asking for it all the time, but as an established company like Google, you have to be way more conservative than a little startup that has nothing to lose,” said Neven, whose company Neven Vision was acquired by Google in 2006. “Technically, we can pretty much do all of these things.”

If Google clearly has the technology, it begs the question – was Google’s swift and adamant denial more public relations move than fact, as the company tries to avoid another dance in the privacy spotlight?

When it comes to privacy, Google has a thin line to walk with both users and lawmakers.

Just this week Google reached a long-awaited settlement with the FTC over privacy violations with its Buzz social networking service, in addition to an $8.5 million settlement in a civil case last November over Buzz as well.  As part of the FTC settlement, the company will be forced to undergo independent audits related to its privacy practices every other year for the next 20 years.

Google has also faced, and continues to face, numerous inquiries from governments concerning data collected by its “Street View” mapping feature and “Wi-Fi” data collection practices.

Further bolstering the idea that perhaps Google just wasn’t quite ready to announce such a bold feature while it faced privacy hot waters, CNN is standing by its reporting, claiming that Google counter claims “do not fit the facts of the situation.”

“This interview was prearranged–on the record–and staffed by a Google PR rep, who raised no objections at the time and did not deny what the engineer said,” a CNN representative told CNET. “Additionally, we have an audio recording of the interview, as does Google. We stand firmly behind Mark’s reporting.”

The ‘Facial Recognition App’ reported by CNN was said to be based off Google’s currently available Goggles feature that can grab text, and identify products, landmarks, works of art, book covers and bar codes, all searchable on Google.

The service could also be another example of Google’s ongoing effort to successfully enter the social networking market, like the +1 social search tool the company unveiled this week.

CNN also reported the facial app would require people to check a box, or ‘opt-in,’ to give Google permission to access their pictures and private contact information, which could include everything from name and email address to phone number, home address or a Facebook page.

A majority of people are “rightfully scared” of a technology that can reveal personal data through facial-recognition, Neven told CNN, “In particular, women say, ‘Oh my God. Imagine this guy takes a picture of me in a bar, and then he knows my address just because somewhere on the Web there is an association of my address with my photo.’ That’s a scary thought. So I think there is merit in finding a good route that makes the power of this technology available in a good way.”

In other words, the question of a Google ‘Facial Recognition App,’ may be more of not if, but when.  As in, ‘when’ the company thinks the public is finally, in their minds, ready.  And when the privacy spotlight has dimmed?