A notification that I’ve been tagged in a photo usually sets off two conflicting emotional states. One is narcissistic curiosity, also known as the “Oh hey look, it’s me!” response. The other is dread, a perfectly reasonable reaction to the possibility that my name might be attached to a photo of me ruining a perfectly innocent Lionel Richie song in a karaoke bar.
This fear is usually mitigated by:
- The (usually false) assumption that my good friends wouldn’t tag a horrendous photo of me.
- The (often true) assumption that my friends are too lazy to go through and tag all of the photos in any particular album.
The new “Find My Face” facial recognition feature from Google+ could change all of that. Whenever a photo is uploaded to Google+, software will now scan it for your distinctive mug and then prompt the uploader to tag you.
For example, say I was at a friend’s party, entertaining the crowd with my impression of Colonel Tigh from Battlestar Galactica. My friend snaps a photo of me mid-grimace with her Android phone, which automatically uploads it to her Google+ account. Later, in the foggy light of morning, she goes through all of her party photos and, located over my face, finds a box with the words “Is this Keith Wagstaff?” next to it.
Before, she might have missed it, or thought “Hey, he might not want a photo of him hunched over and squinting to be viewable all over the Internet,” but now the Internet does the thinking for her, making tagging a photo almost automatic.
Google seems acutely aware of the privacy fears that might arise from this. Matt Steiner, lead engineer on the Google+ Photos team, explains in a Google+ post:
By turning on Find My Face, Google+ can prompt people you know to tag your face when it appears in photos. Of course, you have control over which tags you accept or reject, and you can turn the feature on or off in Google+ settings.
Unlike Facebook’s much-maligned release of similar photo-tagging technology, Google+’s “Find My Face” feature will be opt-in. Upon its release in the “next few days,” users will get a prompt when looking at photos asking whether or not they want to join.
On the whole, I can’t imagine this causing too much uproar. The fact that you can still accept or reject tags and turn off the “Find My Face” feature if you end up not liking it are a good sign that Google+ is staying true to its modest goal of not being as bad as Facebook when it comes to your privacy.
Google has been sensitive to the potential PR nightmare associated with facial recognition software for awhile. Back in March, a widely circulated CNN article claimed Google was working on facial recognition software that would let you bring up personal information about someone simply by taking a picture of them with your smartphone. Google issued a statement that claimed CNN was lying, and CNN responded by saying it had tape to prove it wasn’t.
The point is that it was an ugly ordeal that Google probably doesn’t want to relive. The strategy of waiting for Facebook to screw up and then implementing the same technology sans the hubris has worked out pretty well for it so far.
As long as there are no unpleasant surprises hidden somewhere in the “Find My Face” feature, don’t expect a huge backlash. The ongoing debate over facial recognition software in general, however, isn’t going away anytime soon.