If it had come a day or two later, the concept of a Google facial-recognition system could well have been one of the search giant's April Fools' pranks. Instead, it's prompted a war of words between them and CNN, tapping into ongoing concerns about privacy and the intermingling of our online lives and the real-world.
The original CNN report from earlier this week quoted Google engineering director Hartmut Neven as confirming the company was working on a mobile face-recognition app, capable of matching real-time footage from the camera on an Android device to the photos stored as part of users' Google Profiles pages. Neven heads Google's image-recognition development department, the expertise of which, it was claimed, could be rolled into either the existing Google Image Search or a new app altogether.
Reticence to set a release schedule, CNN claimed, was down to "concerns within Google about how privacy advocates might receive the product." The technology had already been integrated with Google Googles object-recognition and Picasa's face-recognition.
Unsurprisingly, despite CNN's claims that Google was taking a "conservative" approach, privacy advocates and general opinion was less than positive. What was more surprising was Google's own response, the company reaching out to SlashGear among others to quickly squash rumors of a facial-recognition app:
"We are NOT “introducing a mobile application” (as the CNN piece claims) and as we’ve said for over a year, we would NOT add face recognition to any app like Goggles unless there was a strong privacy model in place. A number of items “reported” in the story, such as a potential app connecting phone numbers, email addresses and other information with a person’s face, are purely speculative and are inventions of the reporter." Google spokesperson
With the specter of a biannual privacy audit being completed by independent researchers looming over it, having finally settled a deal with the FCC after the Buzz launch debacle, the strength of Google's reaction was extreme. The company is facing investigation on multiple fronts, with Microsoft demanding the EU begin an antitrust case against them and talk of OEMs and carriers complaining to the US DOJ over how the Google is reportedly handling Android fragmentation.
It was enough to bring out an equally combative retort from CNN itself, insisting that the interview had not only been on the record and approved by Google at the time, but all recorded on tape:
"Google’s claims do not fit the facts of the situation. This interview was prearranged – on the record – and staffed by a Google PR rep, who raised no objections at the time and did not deny what the engineer said. Additionally, we have an audio recording of the interview, as does Google. We stand firmly behind Mark’s reporting.” CNN spokesperson
We've requested a copy of the recording from CNN and will update accordingly.
So, where now? We'd be at the front of the queue for an app that could help us remember names and details of people we'd already met and had established social relationships before, and we imagine plenty of others would be interested as well. The key point is that the connections be existing: I shouldn't be able to look at any stranger and see their details, but if I've met the person before, and have a verified association, then why not?
Update: Google has been in touch with a second statement:
"As we’ve said for more than a year, we will not add facial recognition to Goggles unless we have strong privacy protections in place. We’re still working on them. We have nothing to announce at this time." Google spokesperson
CNN appears to have modified its original article - though the quotes themselves are unchanged - and from what we can tell the sticking point here is the suggestion of an app being in development. As mentioned above, Google's facial-recognition systems are not new, and their primary goal appears not to be taking issue with CNN's quotations but some of the assertions made based on those quotes and the level of current technology, namely that there is an app of some sort in the works. So, perhaps not a firestorm, but an accidental brush fire with both sides taking a strong - and, maybe, unnecessarily aggressive - opening stance.