Google Goggles Facial Recognition Possible, but Not Imminent

Google is not building a separate facial recognition application, but you can expect to see it as a Google Goggles feature. How soon is anyone's guess, as privacy details need to be worked out.

The blogosphere was set ablaze this week with the report that Google was building a facial recognition application that would let users take pictures of people and identify them within seconds.

The problem with the CNN report is that it isn't exactly true, or at least not yet. The real story is more nuanced than that, sources familiar with Google's thinking claim.

To rewind, CNN reported March 31 that Google is working on a mobile application that would allow users to identify users by snapping pictures of their faces with their smartphone's camera.

Hartmut Neven, the Google engineering director for image recognition development, told CNN people would have to check a box agreeing to give Google permission to access their pictures and profile information. This opt-in action would be one way Google solves the inherent privacy question mark that comes with such a program.

Tech bloggers read the report and ran with it, concluding that Google would draw the ire of privacy advocates and regulators already heated from Google's WiFi spying incident and Google Buzz snafu.

Google claimed it is not introducing a mobile app for facial recognition, and argued that what the CNN article positioned as real product and process was based on hypothetical scenarios of how such an instantiation could work.

Some bloggers suggested that CNN reporter Mark Milian blew coverage on the story. CNN stuck to its story, arguing that it has an audio recording of the interview. Search Engine Land, one of the blogs that covered CNN's initial story, published this statement from CNN:

"Google's claims do not fit the facts of the situation. This interview was prearranged - on the record - and staffed by a Google PR rep, who raised no objections at the time and did not deny what the engineer said. Additionally, we have an audio recording of the interview, as does Google. We stand firmly behind Mark's reporting."

Google doesn't dispute this characterization, but sources familiar with the situation told eWEEK what CNN failed to make clear is that there isn't a new, specific facial recognition application in the works. Rather, Google is looking how to make facial recognition a feature that would be incorporated in Google Goggles.

CNN's article, Google believes, failed to make this clear from the outset. What it sounds like is a classic failure to set the boundaries in a meeting between reporter and subject. Onward and upward then.

Developed by Neven and now overseen by Google Product Manager Shailesh Nalawadi, Goggles is the company's visual search application. Goggles users can currently take pictures of book covers, wine bottles, landmarks, paintings and a few other product categories and see search results about those objects retrieved within seconds.

Goggles is the context in which facial recognition would appear, but Google told eWEEK April 1: "As we've said for more than a year, we will not add facial recognition to Goggles unless we have strong privacy protections in place. We're still working on them. We have nothing to announce at this time."