The retinal and facial recognition scanners used to track Tom Cruise in the 2002 futuristic thriller Minority Report were, at the time, a scary glimpse into a world in which privacy was just an illusion. Today, they're real—thanks to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University. Get ready for yet another reason you might not want your picture all over the internet.
On Thursday a Carnegie Mellon research team from the school's cybersecurity institute will present to Black Hat, a security conference in Las Vegas, the results of a rather frightening look into facial-recognition software. Using store-bought software, cloud computing, and publicly available information from social networking sites, the team, led by associate professor Alessandro Acquisti, was able to gather data about people, sometimes even their Social Security numbers, just by pointing a camera at them.
In one experiment, Acquisti's team identified individuals on a popular online dating site where members protect their privacy through pseudonyms. In a second experiment, they identified students walking on campus—based on their profile photos on Facebook. In a third experiment, the research team predicted personal interests and, in some cases, even the Social Security numbers of the students, beginning with only a photo of their faces.
Acquisti and his staff eventually put together a smartphone app that "uses offline and online data to overlay personal and private information over the target's face on the device's screen."
Keep in mind that Acquisti isn't a government representative, nor is his research government-sponsored. He's simply a guy who's using easily obtained technology to create a perfect spy tool. Imagine if closed-circuit cameras like those at all over London could not only keep an eye on people, but immediately identify them as well, and then provide information about their address, age, job, etc. Perhaps its time you stopped allowing people to tag you in photos on Facebook.
"Ultimately, all this access is going to force us to reconsider our notions of privacy," Acquisti said of his research in a statement. "It may also affect how we interact with each other... Will we rely on our instincts or on our devices, when mobile phones can predict personal and sensitive information about a person?"
It used to be smartphones helped you have intimate conversations with friends. Pretty soon they're going to help you know strangers intimately, too.