An interesting article on the Economist.com explains how computers are being taught to recognize both objects and people. This is important, because it helps bring about the “Internet of Things“. Currently, information on the Internet is tagged so it can be searched for by name or tag. If you’re at the nearest Best Buy and want to find out if the 50” flat screen is a good buy, you can type in the information into Google and do some research. With computers that can recognize objects, you’d be able to take a picture of the flat screen you’re examining and your iPhone could let you know everything about it–handy for an individual.
The article also explains how computers can identify facial expressions to decide if employees are friendly enough to customers by analyzing their smile. Other computer systems can identify the rough age of someone by the shape of their face. Useful for vending machines selling cigarettes or alcohol.
These two technologies used together can create many new problems when automated in a public place. Imagine you’re visiting your favorite ice cream store. You go in and try a few flavors, and eventually settle on rocky road. The following week, you receive a coupon in the mail for rocky road ice cream from the same store you had just visited. How did it know?
It would know because facial recognition would allow it to identify you, and also, because the computer can identify your base facial expressions, tell which ice cream you liked. Pulling up information available on the Internet, it would find your address and send you the coupon for rocky road ice cream. If it sounds a little Big Brotherish, well then it is.
Applied on a broad scale, computers could harvest information about everyone and their habits. Some of this information might be useful, and actually add value to society, but our privacy should be protected at all costs.
The problem is who will own information on the Internet? Currently there are vague rules for even the information available as you surf websites. The problem will be compounded by real-time passive collection. What will constitute permission to record your activities for informational purposes? Can information be recorded about you in a public place?
These are questions we should be asking, and passing along to our representatives in government. We also need to be clear with the companies we frequent that we want our privacy protected. While this won’t stop the inevitable abuses, we can limit the damage if we start acting now.