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Google pulls the plug on face recognition apps – for now

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By Simon Davies

Last week the Privacy Surgeon published a critical piece alerting readers to a new app that would have turned Google Glass into an automated face recognition device. The article warned that the new software would irrevocably shift the Glass product to “the dark side” and that there were serious inherent dangers in the product. These include the capacity in future to match stored data against faces that were identified in a crowd.

Today Google published a change in its developer policies to temporarily reject further face recognition apps until protections have been put in place. The new policy states:

Opt-in is the only solution.

“Don’t use the camera or microphone to cross-reference and immediately present personal information identifying anyone other than the user, including use cases such as facial recognition and voice print. Applications that do this will not be approved at this time.”

The change in policy also reflects US Congressional concern over the potential for face recognition to invade privacy.

Now comes the acid test. Although Google’s reputational risk response capability has improved lately, it’s not so clear whether the company is any wiser on the question of privacy. The company is still isolated in that domain, and its idea of “safeguards” is unlikely to match the definition that more privacy-aware organisations have developed.

In this case it’s probably a fair bet that Google will regard opt-out as an adequate safeguard – a situation that would be rejected by all privacy advocates and most European regulators. Opt-in is the only solution. Whether Google has the ideological will to hear that argument is yet to be seen, but nothing in the company’s history gives rise to optimism.