Nowhere to hide: Video location tech has arrived

New technologies are turning Web videos and photos into tools that will destroy your privacy

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More startling is the system's ability to pinpoint a location by analyzing sounds in a video. It can, for example, "listen" to a train whistle and know it came from a train passing through Tokyo. No, that's not hypothetical. It's already been done, and the software has been trained on the sounds of 32 cities around the world, says Gerald Friedland, who heads ICSI's multimedia efforts.

The same technology could be applied to photographs, which means the huge trove of precise geographical data generated by Google Street View and almost every digital camera could be used to train a system much more extensive than the one currently being built in Berkeley.

The core fight: Privacy vs. dollars
ICSI's video research was initially funded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (one of the 17 U.S. spy agencies), Friedland says. That's hardly a coincidence. The military uses of the technology, like the hypothetical tracking of bin Laden, are obvious. But aside from the debate over the morality of drone warfare, the ability to extract tracking or identifying data from a video or still photo is worrisome. It's no stretch to imagine a cop in Iran -- or the United States -- looking at pictures or videos of a protest and using facial identification, for example, to figure out who was holding the banner or leading the march.

Less extreme, but still scary is the tagging of photos by Facebook users, often without the permission of the owner of that face. Although facial recognition is a difficult technology -- it still doesn't work very well -- Facebook is interested in making it more precise. Facebook and has long partnered with Face.com, a supplier of that technology. In buying the Israeli company last June, Facebook made clear its intention to double down on facial recognition as a tool to build traffic and revenue -- not toss users into Guantanamo. (Google purchased a similar company in 2011.)

The more data on users that Facebook supplies to advertisers and third-party app developers, the more money it makes. The company has already collected billions (I'm not exaggerating) of photos. Given its terrible record of abusing our privacy, what are the odds that Facebook will say no to a lucrative deal that mines its store of geotagged pictures?

Even if Facebook were scrupulous about user privacy, that data store would be a very tempting target for hackers. Given how fragile security at even major financial institutions appears to be these days, that's very worrisome.

Then there's the FBI plan, first publicized in 2011 by Nextgov.com: The FBI is planning a nationwide facial-recognition service in select states that will allow local police to identify unknown subjects in photos, bureau officials told Nextgov.

I don't spend my time looking out the window for the black helicopters, and I don't want to squelch research into new technologies even if they have the potential to be misused. But the tagging of America is frightening. It's time we had a very adult conversation about it.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill@billsnyder.biz. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Nowhere to hide: Video location tech has arrived," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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