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Google "face-blur" technology better preserves privacy

The idea is great. If you haven’t used it, check out the Street View button when using Google Maps. It’s interesting to see places you haven’t been on a virtual tour, similar to what the Realtors use for their online home tours. It doesn’t cover everywhere, simply because it requires feet on the street. However, most of the big metropolitan areas have at least some footage.

Unfortunately, users found a problem with Google Street View shortly after its introduction. The camera’s caught people in the act – of whatever. It was sensationalized by the New York Times coverage of the privacy of Mary Kalin-Casey’s cat. Wired Magazine even held a contest for the best pictures captured by the new Google maps extension, including the gentleman caught alongside the highway in San Bruno, CA relieving himself. It was kind of fun in a Where’s Waldo sense.

With the newest revision of their software, Google automatically blurs faces announcing,

“We’re also taking this opportunity to test our new face-blurring technology on the busy streets of Manhattan. This effort has been a year in the making — working at Street View-scale is a tough challenge that required us to advance state-of-the-art automatic face detection…”

Its anyone’s guess, but Google will likely replace existing street maps with the new sharper resolution and anonymized versions. They’re starting with Manhattan, for the obvious population density. We’ll see where they go next.

There are numerous applications of this sort of technology. The blurring itself is not that impressive. Cops have been doing it for those presumed innocent for years. And recognizing a face within a single frame is now built into cameras. Research into novel facial detection and search capabilities continues – it’s a tough problem, accounting for lighting, angles, profiles, etc. A product calling itself Google Portrait (although not affiliated with Google) finds pictures in a search I tried for Barack Obama.

The 2001 Tampa Super Bowl was the first big privacy splash with this sort of technology, where attendee’s faces were plucked from surveillance cameras and compared against a person of interest database. Critics considered this an invasion of privacy. In the debate, a UCLA law professor, Eugene Volokh rang in his opinion.

“There’s no Fourth Amendment problem if the government is simply observing — or even recording — what goes on in public,” Volokh says. “For constitutional purposes, that’s just not a ‘search,’ because there’s no legitimate expectation of privacy. Nobody thinks that their appearance at the Super Bowl is something that is hidden from the roving eye.”

For the original privacy issues, Google’s response appears manual, in several instances simply re-filming or deleting frames. Google will always have a tough problem on their hands. They warehouse more information than anyone else in the world. This latest feature shows the company’s commitment to its reputation; they listen to their customers, and when something becomes a front page headline, they react with cutting edge technology. If they don’t, you’ll be learning the rules and regulations they will face in legislation covered on the CIPP exam.

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