Published August 08, 2011
Is this the death of anonymity?
Imagine this scenario: You're walking down the street and spy a girl or guy you'd like to get to know better. You envision a nice cup of coffee followed by a stroll in the park -- followed by a happily ever after.
Now imagine that you could point your cellphone's camera at that person and get not only their name but also personal information such as occupation, marital status and income, and perhaps even likes, dislikes, hobbies and credit score.
Great for stalkers? Yes. And this possibility is not to far off in the future.
A new study from Carnegie Mellon University's Alessandro Acquisti, Ralph Gross and Fred Stutzman showed that current technology can actually cross reference a person's face with currently available photos on the Web and find out information about that person, including their interests -- and in some cases their social security numbers.
Before you panic and start Google-hunting for Phantom of the Opera masks, consider that this technology is not completely ready. CMU's researchers could identify only about one third of their subjects in what they called "offline to online recognition." The other two-thirds were able to remain anonymous.
To manage this feat, the researchers took photos of students on a North American college campus with a Webcam. They then compared those shots to photos they found on Facebook using facial recognition software.
Then they went data mining.
By pillaging around the Internet for more personal information about those identified students, they were able to find not only interests but in some cases addresses and social security numbers. They referred to this as "augmented reality," meaning the researchers augmented what you see in the real world with information that you can find online.
While I've always thought anonymity can be overrated, this scares even someone as public as myself. I can easily see people using it for malicious purposes.
For example, imagine two strangers bumping into one another on the streets of New York City -- two far from friendly people. Imagine terse words are exchanged with choice expletives. Imagine one person getting so inflamed that he decides the argument isn't over, even when both walk away.
Imagine he looks up the other person with this technology, finds an address, and finishes the argument later with a surprise house call.
I don't want to fearmonger, but not all strangers who go seeking information about other strangers have true love in mind as in the example I first cited.
The Carnegie Mellon study was not meant to scare us, but rather to prepare us for what technology can and will inevitably do. So now that we know about it, how can we prepare for a world without anonymity and personal boundaries?
You can't fight progress but you can live by this rule: The less sensitive information you put on the Internet, the less sensitive information someone can find out about you.