Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Google Image Stalking

So, Google is introducing a few new features, and as always, the applications can be used for evil.

One of the features aims to allow users to ask questions through their microphone, and have Google search for the words you speak rather than requiring you to type them in. It will recognize your voice and send the words to the search engine.

Another new search is the Google Search By Image. This feature claims that it will let you upload a picture and find information about that picture. For example, if I have a picture of me in front of a building, Google Search By Image would attempt to identify that building. That seems really interesting.

I decided to test it out with some pictures of a trip I took. I went to the Google image search, and downloaded the Firefox extension which allows you to right click on any image in your Web browser and search the Google Search By Image tool for it. However, it doesn't work with Firefox 4.0 yet, so I decided to try it in Google Chrome. I then dragged a few images in to the browser.

I had some pictures of a cruise I took last summer, so I decided to try those.

First, I tried a picture of a lighthouse I saw in Canada. It came up with some pictures that were very similar, but they were the lighthouse in Cape May, NJ.

I decided to try something easier, and I dragged a photo of the Statue of Liberty there. Google Search by Image correctly identified it and returned other images of it and a link to the Wikipedia article.

I tried a picture of a random chunk of the NYC skyline, taken from sea, and that also did not return anything useful.

I tried a picture of a pretty distinctive tour bus from St. John's, Canada, and it wasn't able to match that either.

Verdict on the image locator: weak so far.

Google also claimed it could locate an image that is on the Web. I dragged an image of something I am selling on Craigslist, and it was able to immediately find and display that for me. I dragged another image of something I am selling on eBay, and it was able to find that. Finally, I tried an image I downloaded randomly, and it was able to show me where that image came from. I would say this is a success.

Verdict: This could also be pretty powerful if you are checking to find where an image came from, in case you want to use legally it in a publication, but isn't going to be able to determine where a vacation photo was taken unless it has a pretty obvious or distinctive monument in it.

Google does claim there is no facial recognition that will be available. Color me suspicious.

For a number of years, Google had a free 411 service called Google 411. Many people felt like the reason Google was doing this was to allow testing of their voice-recognition algorithm. All of a sudden, they have Google voice search. I would assume they tested and improved their algorithms in part with their free 411 service.

Now, Google is going to claim there is no facial recognition that is available. However, they will be amassing a powerful database of photographs. The Google privacy statement seems to allow them to keep Web requests, and my interpretation of an image is that it is a Web request.  Given what they did with Google 411, I would suspect that they will save the images you upload for their own testing purposes. Could facial recognition be something they are testing?  Who knows.

I tend to trust Google more than some of the other big name companies, but just because they aren't making facial recognition available to the public, doesn't mean they aren't gathering our uploaded photos to test their software.

I also have some concerns about how, if this technology develops, people might use this to stalk or harass other people. For example, let's say someone uploads a few pictures to their Facebook, or hacks their phone, or steals their digital camera. If someone is trying to hide from someone, those pictures may be searchable and usable. In addition, let's say a criminal finds a digital camera and notices people wearing nice jewelry in it. Could the pictures possibly lead them to a person's residence? As I said before, this does not seem to be at that point yet, but always something to think about.

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