Google keeping face recognition under wraps over privacy criticisms


Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt said the company is holding back on its face recognition technology in response to widespread criticism of its approach to privacy when launching new products.

Face recognition would enable users to take a photo of someone and then search for them on the internet, and is already present in limited form in Picasa, Google's photo-sharing service.

But while Picasa only uses the technology to suggest potential matches for a particular face within your own images, privacy campaigners are concerned that a wider implementation could be used as a tool to track strangers, increasing the risk of fraud and stalking.

As a result, Google has decided to hold off launching the technology until it has been tested more thoroughly, with Schmidt saying this showed Google had heard its critics and reviewed its approach to launching new products accordingly.

"Facial recognition is a good example," Schmidt told The Financial Times. "Anything we did in that area would be highly, highly planned, discussed and reviewed."

Google was roundly criticised for exposing users' personal details when it launched its Gmail-based Buzz social network in February. In its original form, Buzz built your list of friends automatically, based on the people you most frequently emailed, with this list being made public unless you changed your profile's settings.

The criticisms didn't stop there, and Google was forced to update Buzz twice in just one week, with the company eventually admitting it hadn't put the software through enough testing before making it publicly available.

"When you go through these things, you review your management procedures," Schmidt said yesterday.

Google's cause won't have been helped by news emerging this week that the cars it uses to take photos for its Street View mapping service had also been accidentally collecting private information held on unprotected Wi-Fi networks across Europe.

Despite these criticisms, Schmidt says Google would maintain its drive to develop new technologies. "It is important that we continue to innovate," he said.