Why Google Decided to Create Its Own Facial-Recognition Privacy Problem

Last Updated Jul 25, 2011 2:59 PM EDT

Last month, Google (GOOG) thought that facial recognition was too dangerous to implement. But that was then and this is now: Google just bought facial recognition technology company PittPatt. Google management might as well have whacked a hornet's nest and then said, "Oh, sorry, my bad."

Given mounting public suspicion over the company's intentions -- and the number of regulators worldwide that twitch every time they hear its name -- you might wonder what pushed Google to do a complete and utter about face, one that puts the lie to chairman Eric Schmidt's statement, "As far as I know it's the only technology Google built and after looking at it we decided to stop." The triptych answer is simple: money, Facebook, and the fact that new CEO Larry Page has the emotional acuity of an Android.

Now Google sees you, now it doesn't
Google has had a rocky relationship with facial recognition:

Then, last month, Schmidt reiterated that the technology presented potential danger:
If you imagine, for example, what a perfectly executing evil dictator would do with all this technology -- complete supervision, complete tracking, and so forth -- and then you imagine what the dissident in that society would do, using the very best encryption tools and so forth, unfortunately you conclude that exactly the same tools are the ones that would be used by terrorists against an open society.
And then came the PittPatt acquisition and a statement on the pattern recognition company's Web site:
At Google, computer vision technology is already at the core of many existing products (such as Image Search, YouTube, Picasa, and Goggles), so it's a natural fit to join Google and bring the benefits of our research and technology to a wider audience. We will continue to tap the potential of computer vision in applications that range from simple photo organization to complex video and mobile applications.
Well, technically they could be looking for patterns other than faces. OK, in addition to faces. Fine, fine -- Google wants to match everyone with their pictures everywhere.

The face that's worth a thousand dollars
Google is relentless in its drive to make ads pay off better. It has to be, as advertising is its only form of revenue. The company has grown its display ad growth; according to comScore, in the U.S. in June, Google was number 1 in Web traffic and in unique traffic to an ad network.

The company claims that financial services and automobile categories have led its growth. That's display ad territory far more than search ads. To continue growing in display revenue, Google has to deliver what the marketers want: every bit of information on consumers it can acquire, including associating identities with the people who appear in various contexts in photos.

Gotta beat Facebook
The race for ad revenue gets even more critical in the face of Google's competition from Facebook, which also has massive amounts of personal information on consumers, has enabled facial recognition photo tagging by default.

Ever wondered what happened to the Cold War? It's become Facebook versus Google. Facial recognition is nothing but another form of competitive armament. Neither side can afford to let the other gain an advantage and a slice of the first's market share.

What, me worry (about consumers)?
Realistically, Google is gambling that neither consumers nor regulators see this as another example of PR whiplash, alternating between readily exploiting and supposedly protecting privacy. The problem is that Google top management doesn't get normal human interaction.

There have been times that company co-founder Sergey Brin couldn't grasp the consumer privacy issues in scanning through emails in Gmail because, in his mind, there was no issue. After all, it wasn't as though Google employees actual read through customers' emails. It was just Google's automatons that did ... and remembered everything so that, if it wanted to, the company could do more with what it learned.

That's what makes Larry Page the third leg of the stool. Money and Facebook are reasons to dump previous promises (or appearances of promises). Top Google execs' total inability to understand average people immediately makes privacy concerns a non-starter within the company. After all, no "rational" person will object. Just the 99 plus percent of the populace that isn't.

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Image: Flickr user alancleaver_2000, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.