Latest Google Glass Controversy: Face-Recognition Search Engine App

February 11, 2014 Updated: February 11, 2014

For those who crave constant Internet access, there’s Google Glass. But the device may soon intrude on the lives of non-Glass users, as well. A new app designed for the wearable computer raises new privacy concerns.

Billed as the first facial recognition search engine, the NameTag app grants Glass users the power to put a name (and a host of many other personal details) to a stranger’s face.

Many companies already use facial recognition capabilities with in-store camera systems, online services, game consoles, and mobile devices. Proponents believe the technology has the potential to improve the consumer experience and create stronger security measures both on and offline. 

But Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) fears the spread and development of facial recognition capabilities far outpace the development of policies for its use. In a letter on Feb. 5, Franken urged NameTag manufacturer FacialNetwork to postpone release of the app at least until there is a code of conduct suited to cope with privacy challenges. 

Although Google has rejected facial recognition capabilities for Glass, the Web surfing spectacles can be modified to override the ban, and Franken believes that NameTag shows potential for abuse.

Scans Dating Sites

“I am especially concerned that NameTag plans to scan dating websites such as Match and OkCupid.” Franken wrote. “It is easy to envision how this technology could facilitate harassment, stalking and other threats to personal security. Your company has an obligation to protect users from these threats.”

As facial recognition capabilities have grown in sophistication and popularity, Franken—who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law—has repeatedly spoken out against the privacy threats it presents. Franken held a hearing on the issue in 2012, and has prompted the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to take a closer look at the privacy risks.

Facebook’s Faceprint Collection

The seeds of facial recognition capabilities emerged in the 1960s, but the accuracy of the technology and the size of the online faceprint database to support it have grown tremendously. 

Facebook plays a big role in development, with over a billion users subject to facial recognition technology by default. Facebook expanded its database in September 2013 after acquiring, giving the social network giant the world’s largest privately held faceprint collection. Despite pressure from the Senate Judiciary, Facebook would not promise to keep its database out of the hands of third party interests. 

On Feb. 6, privacy advocates and tech companies met with the NTIA in the first of a series of discussions scheduled through June 2014 to forge a code of conduct for privacy safeguards. The NTIA warns that as applications become more prevalent, consumers will be forced to secure their faceprints to ensure appropriate control over personal data. 

NameTag creator Kevin Alan Tussy wrote a reply to Sen. Franken on Feb. 7 addressing his concerns. He vowed that FacialNetwork would adhere to strict self-imposed privacy standards, would not violate Google’s facial recognition ban, but would press to make applications available. 

As for privacy risks, NameTag only uses publically available information and photos, and gives individuals the option to opt out of the database through the company’s website.

“The only exceptions are public figures and those who the courts have deemed not to have a right to privacy and cannot choose to stay anonymous, such as registered sex offenders,” Tussy wrote.

Tussy added that he would also consider postponing the app’s release.

“We had planned to release NameTag in Q1, 2014, however due to your letter and the respect we have for the NTIA, we will seriously discuss the possibility of delaying the app until the best practices are officially established,” Tussy wrote.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner