Google ups ante in internet privacy

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 02/07/2012

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What's in a face?

There are few outfits that are as easy to put the boot into as police. Any organisation with the job of keeping the peace and providing a thin blue line of enforcement is likely to come in for criticism – either for not doing enough enforcement, or doing too much of it.

And while the ability to deliver criticism in the public forum is a mark of a free society, it can't make police's job any easier. For this reason I felt a bit sorry for the boys and girls in blue, when they were criticised by some civil libertarian groups last week for their new wanted persons website, police.govt.nz/wanteds.

Folks feature on the site either because they are wanted for arrest or need to be identified in relation to a crime, as a suspect or witness.

At the time of writing, 26 people in Wellington, Hawke's Bay and Gisborne feature, but within a couple of months all 12 police districts will be using it.

In simple terms it's not a lot different to the wanted posters that have been used for hundreds of years. However, in the interconnected age of the web, the viewing audience increases manifold – the police website regularly gets more than 140,000 unique browsers a month.

The network effect of instant sharing via email, social media and instant message kicks in. So that old Wild West poster just went nuclear. Better still, it starts crowd-sourcing data, harnessing hundreds of organisations and hundreds of thousands of eyeballs.

While no immediate threat to the likes of Apple or Amazon, police have made a pretty good fist of harnessing the internet.

They started using social media websites both to engage and investigate more than four years ago, delivered online payments for fines, and use Twitter for recruitment and news. Hell, the commissioner even has a blog!

So this latest development shouldn't surprise anyone. And while you need to be careful about what you say in such "rogues' galleries", it looks like police are being careful about sticking to deadpan factual statements about why the pictured person is being sought.

Call me a paranoid redneck, but I'd rather know which people are being sought by police, rather than hiding it. Meanwhile, if people choose to disobey the laws of the land, and then go to ground, I figure they've also chosen to give up a chunk of their privacy rights.

Potentially a much bigger threat in terms of personal privacy gently went live a year ago, when images.google.com moved into production. Imagine the good old Google search engine, but instead of putting in alpha-numeric text, you just paste a photograph (or alternatively the URL to an image). The self-professed goal is to organise the world of images.

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At first blush this is a pretty cool feature. Remember that great beach where you stopped last year in the Coromandel and went for a swim? You've forgotten the name but can see it in your head and still have the snap you took. Paste the picture into Google image search and it will find the beach and tell you its name.

However, it will also do a whole lot more. If you have a photograph of a person (but not their name) then you can paste it in and search for them. And if that photograph appears somewhere on the web then it is likely to find it for you, and the chances are high that it will include the person's name.

To be clear, it's not face recognition software but image recognition software; it needs to find an existing image or related content that matches the image being searched.

But for the plethora of online ventures where you use a made-up moniker but a real picture it can have pretty sobering repercussions.

On Facebook this sort of thing has been normal for some time. The "photo tag suggest" tool reviews photographs for known faces and suggests nametags. Google+ offers "find my face" which works in a similar way. But breaking face-search out from behind the walls of a social network into the yeasty, organic world of search really ups the ante.

A year ago the Law Commission delivered the final part of its mammoth five-year Privacy Act Review.

Two key themes of the review were ensuring the Privacy Commissioner was well-equipped to champion privacy in a digital age, and that by delivering effective privacy protection citizens would continue to trust the Government. If Parliament doesn't get a wriggle on there's a good chance that trust will evaporate.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, author and e-commerce manager. He is not on the police most wanted site. Yet.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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