The sinister side of Google’s Picasa face tagging

So, let me start by saying that I love Picasa, Google’s photo organization tool. It automatically finds new photos as you add them to your hard drive. It lets you crop pictures, remove red-eye, adjust colors and make a few other basic edits that cover probably 95% of what most people need to do when editing photos. It lets you select a few photos from your library and email them to anyone with just a couple of clicks. It also integrates with Google Earth and Google Maps to show you on a map where a particular photo was taken (for those unaware, GPS-enabled cameras, including many mobile phone cameras [e.g., iPhone] embed your GPS coordinates within the EXIF metadata of the photo, so any person, program or website with access to the image will know the location at which it was taken).

It also has a nifty feature called face tagging. How this works, basically, is Picasa analyzes all of the photos in your library and looks for faces. There’s some algorithm in the program that can recognize that two eyes, a nose, a mouth and maybe some hair is a face. So if you use the face-tagging feature, Picasa shows you a page of faces extracted from your photo library. Initially these photos have no names, but Picasa does some basic grouping of them. For example, it doesn’t know who your Uncle Bob is, but it does know that these 14 photos are all of the same person. The grouping feature isn’t perfect, but it is very helpful when you decide to apply a name to the group of photos – tagging 14 photos instead of one is a great time-saver.

This feature only really becomes useful if you start tagging faces with real names — i.e. if you tag the photos of Uncle Bob by telling Picasa “these are photos of Uncle Bob.” If you facetag enough photos, Google will start “guessing” the name for a particular face, and tagging it automatically. This feature is also not perfect, but I imagine they’re working on improving it all the time.

So, this all happens on your computer, within Picasa. I’m not so much of a tinfoil hat type as to suggest Google’s doing anything in particular with the data on your computer itself. The “problem” as I see it is that when you tag a photo of Uncle Bob, Picasa pulls Uncle Bob’s contact info out of your Gmail contacts. So essentially, you’re tying a face to an email address. As I said, I don’t think Google’s surreptitiously going to use the info that resides on your computer.

But in addition to Picasa, the photo organization tool you run on your computer, Google offers an online photo album service called Picasa Web Albums. This is similar to other services, Flickr being the largest, that offer a simple way to upload photos and share them with others. All users get 1 GB of free storage, and you can buy more pretty cheaply (as of today you can get 20 GB for $5/year). As you might expect from the names, Picasa and Picasa Web Albums integrate very well. If you create an album within Picasa, all you have to do to upload it to Picasa Web Albums is click the “Sync This Album” button. It will then upload all the photos in the album to Picasaweb.

Here’s where the potential creepy part starts. Let’s say you have a photo in Picasa, that you took on August 4th, 2010, at 10:00 AM, and you’ve tagged 2 faces in it: Aunt Alice (alice@gmail.com) and Uncle Bob (bob@gmail.com). Let’s further say that you took this photo with your iPhone, so the GPS coordinates are embedded in the photo metadata. You upload the photo to Picasa Web Albums. Well, now you’ve just told Google the following:

  • What alice@gmail.com looks like.
  • What bob@gmail.com looks like.
  • Where alice@gmail.com and bob@gmail.com physically were (via GPS coordinates) on 8/4/2010 at 10:00 AM

There’s lots of other information you’ve probably also told them, but these are the data that are creeping me out lately. If your album has 20 or 30 photos of Alice and Bob that you’ve tagged with their contact info then Google’s got a pretty good idea what they look like – if the Picasa desktop app is able to guess who people in your photos are based on some algorithm inside it, imagine what Google’s billion-dollar datacenters can do?

In all likelihood, you aren’t the only one uploading photos of Alice and Bob. Other people at other events tag photos of Alice and Bob and upload them to Google, further “teaching” this massive computer brain what Alice and Bob look like (since email addresses are basically internet-wide unique IDs, two photos tagged with the same email address can generally be assumed to be the same person). Alice and Bob may never use Picasa, may not even own a camera themselves, and may not even use Google at all. But at this point Google knows what they look like and where they’ve gone – completely apart from their computer-based activities.

I think facial recognition is going to become huge for marketers over the next decade or so. Picasa offers users a useful feature that seems like it has this sinister other side to it – basically building an enormous crowdsourced facial recognition database, so they’ll be able to identify millions of people right out of the gate. If New York City ever gives Google access to its street cams, Google will be able to track the activities of millions more people without their knowledge or consent. Combine that with the existing knowledge Google has – if your iPhone checks your Gmail account, they know your general location at any given time anyway, just based on IP address – and they can create a pretty accurate (in advertising terms) picture of you. And with facial recognition, it will actually BE a picture of you.

Much is made of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto (and I couldn’t write this without throwing those 3 words in), and I tend to be somewhat of a Google fanboy myself. However, much like government, what you have to worry about isn’t always what the current regime is doing with its power, but what the regime 10 or 20 or 100 years from now will do with it. I’m sure Google has rules about how these data are used, but rules change; rules are broken. If there’s one rule that seems inviolate throughout human history it’s that power corrupts. Knowledge is power. Or something.

Well, whatever. I still love Picasa, it just gives me this creepy feeling sometimes. This stuff is all completely voluntary, nobody is being forced to use any of these features, but like I said, Uncle Bob and Aunt Alice were tagged in a photo by someone else – you don’t need to do anything to have your face added to the Great Google Face Database In The Sky. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I was prompted to write it down based on Eric Schmidt’s recent comment, “Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are.”

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2 thoughts on “The sinister side of Google’s Picasa face tagging”

  1. 100% agree with everything you’ve written – which is why I have made quite an effort to not use gmail to sync my photos with contact details for my phone. It is possible, but not easy… Picassa -> Gmail contacts -> Thunderbird with gcontactsync -> merge with address details either in Thunderbird with mergecontacts (or in Outlook). Then -> vcards with photos with thundersync. Then into outlook with opal- import (to import a single vcard multiple contact file). Finally into HTC android phone with HTC sync…

    But as you point out – someone else has probably done it anyway…. so maybe I should just hand over all this personal info for each contact (Emails, tel no.s, addresses, spouse etc) to Google so when the machines take over it’ll make it easier for them…

    Deus Ex Machina….

  2. Lots of truth in what you say, but to me there is also a flipside to it. In today’s date and age with DNA identification etc it is quite possible to be associated with a crime merely by having DNA in an area where a crime has taken place, even well after you have been at such a place, say a jewellery store.

    Having exif data handy could place me in a completely different place at the time of the crime.

    As for the rest, if you have little to hide, I cannot see my data as being of interest to anyone

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