Last updated: May 20, 2010 1:02 am

Google debates face recognition technology

Google executives are wrestling over whether to launch controversial facial recognition technology after a barrage of criticism over its privacy policies.

Eric Schmidt, chief executive, said a series of public disputes over privacy issues had caused the management team to review its procedures and the launch of new technologies. According to Google executives, facial recognition is one of the key topics of internal debate.

Mr Schmidt said: “Facial recognition is a good example . . . anything we did in that area would be highly, highly planned, discussed and reviewed. When you go through these things, you review your management procedures.”

However, he would not rule out any eventual roll-out, saying: “It is important that we continue to innovate.”

Facial recognition has the potential to be the next privacy flashpoint. Google already uses the technology in its Picasa photo sharing service. This lets users tag some of the people in their photos and then searches through other albums to suggest other pictures in which the same faces appear.

However, Google has held back on launching the technology more broadly. It was not included, for example, in the Google Goggles product, launched last year. This allows people to search for something on the internet by taking a picture of it on a mobile phone.

Privacy campaigners have raised fears that adding facial recognition to Goggles would allow users to track strangers through a photograph, making it into an ideal tool for stalkers and identity fraudsters.

Google’s dilemma is that other companies, such as Israeli start-up Face.com, are developing face-recognition tools, and Google fears that it could lose an important advantage by further delaying a product launch.

Google is facing probes by the Spanish, French, German, Italian and Czech data protection authorities after revealing it had accidentally recorded data from unsecured WiFi connections over the past three years.

Earlier this year it faced a public outcry over Buzz, its social networking site, which critics claimed had exposed private information without the approval of users.

Mr Schmidt insisted that the WiFi data collection had not resulted in any real harm. He said the company needed to do more to educate users about privacy concerns.

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