A recent study into the face recognition instruments used by social networks has revealed the alarming ease with which private data can be exploited.
For a couple months already the world has been gleefully uploading out-of-focus holiday photos onto Facebook in order to try a new feature, while experts point at growing concerns about the use of automated instrument to identify people in the pictures. In June 2011, Facebook claimed it would be using the tools to “tag” account holders automatically, and the feature came as a default one, which means users had to go out of their way to turn it off.
At the same time, newly launched social network Google+ appeared to offer a more customizable approach to data sharing, but the same study proved that there was still cause for concern. The researchers managed to identify subjects and find out their social security numbers with the help of just a webcam and Google’s facial recognition software.
By comparing pictures available on the Facebook user profile pages, the researchers managed to work out the identity of 30% of photographed people in the matter of minutes. Besides, in 27% of cases they managed to very simply find out the first 5 digits of a social security number, right from harvested data. They did it by obtaining simple user-submitted data most often available on profile pages, such as the date of birth.
Why is this tool harmful? Imagine a burglar snapping someone leaving the house and using social network to find out their working schedules or vacation. That is just one example. Apparently, you don’t have to have a profile picture on Facebook, and can disable the face recognition, but in most cases, it's not something a lot of users will consider. In order to prove this point, the researchers have created a smartphone application able to identify anonymous members of the public right on the go, along with their social security number. Although they didn’t plan to post the data to the Android Market, it showed a disturbing picture of the ease with which people can manipulate face recognition technology.
The representatives of the privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch claimed that more should be done to make sure that the internet users are aware of the potential danger of social networks misuse and recommended Google and Facebook to use such tools on an “opt in” basis only.