The curious case of face.com

Sometimes, we prefer to lose our privacy in exchange for comfort; we do so when we store our contacts on a cellular phone or when we print business cards which we exchange with strangers; the social interaction itself is a difficult and dangerous transaction. However, the real danger lies where privacy and comfort decide to interact, in involuntary exchange of information.

Today’s, Techonomy, a conference about the interaction between technology and economy, was held in Tel-Aviv. The winners of the Start-up competition were face.com. face.com provides a face recognition platform for social networks (in the meantime) which locates images of you and your friends in other users’ tagged photos. face.com’s face recognition is quite amazing and has the ability to find you even when you’re in the background or wearing sunglasses. They are currently in closed alpha, and I had the pleasure to play with it for a few minutes before writing this blogpost (which was sufficient to know that it’s quite efficient).

However, my main concern comes from face.com’s database. face.com can recognise faces of your facebook contacts even though they are not in your albums, but in friends’ albums. This means that by cross indexing a relatively small amount of facebook connectors, face could retain (or store) the facial recognition of a high percentage of users.

Here comes the privacy issue from the privacy freak; however. Now, take Israel’s new attempt to establish a biometric and face database and their recent attempts for installing cctvs and imagine the hypothetical scenario where our benevolent dictator comes and asks face.com’s database in order to examine a suspect in terrorism or issues a warrant to require face.com to search for a specific missing/suspected person in social networks and/or cctvs. Can face.com actually refuse such generous offer?

When face.com only indexes my own photos, and only tags me if I gave my consent (and not opted out) then it’s all yet consensual waiver of privacy; privacy in exchange for comfort, what we usually do. However, when it’s other’s faces, without their consent or knowledge, such a database might be extremely dangerous. I’d love to inspect the guts of face.com’s database and see how can they protect users’ privacy without limiting this application, but if they manage to do that, well, let them sell it to our government