Monday, April 20, 2009

Image Content Search: When Sci-Fi Becomes Reality and Anti-Utopia Knocks on the Door

Today is a great day for law enforcement and a bad day for careless young people. It is an even worse day for paranoid people, because today Google announced the search feature that will make it nearly impossible to hide online. Today, Google announced what they call “similar image search,” a handy feature for discerning between an image of a jaguar, the animal, and Jaguar, the car, as shown in their example. This is an extension of the previously released “color search.” In reality, the search giant showed the world that the processing power of its servers and its search algorithms are capable of analyzing image content and comparing sets of pixels. This means that eventually users will be able to upload a picture or select a part of a picture and search for “similar images.”

The implications of such a possibility are tremendous. People will be able to do anything with images from identifying blurred or unknown objects in any picture to finding embarrassing pictures of themselves, their friends, or co-workers to discovering people connected to suspects in investigations. This is not sci-fi anymore: Google has already introduced facial recognition and search in Picasa Web Albums, which currently limited only to individual accounts but global search most likely is not far away.

This brings the anti-utopia closer than ever. Bad guys will be looking for good guys and their loved ones. Employers and ill-wishers will be looking for compromising pictures. Spammers will be trying to trick search engines into showing their pictures with unsolicited messages. All of these situations are present in one form or another, and there is no need for a Crusade against Google or for a mass creation of tin-foil hats. Yet, it does not diminish the debate of whether Google is out there to dominate the world with its “anything and anyone can be found” capabilities.

Obviously, not everything is as bas as it seems. Privacy freaks can relax for now. It will be ages of legal debates before image indexing will be allowed into social networks. It will be also a huge business decision as nothing will cause more of an exodus from Facebook than allowing Google to make all pictures searchable by content. Of course, law enforcement agencies will eventually get some sort of courts-granted authorizations to index and search images looking for suspect connections, especially under the “national security” excuse. However, more petty crimes will get solved with such a tool available as small-scale criminals usually lack the sophistication to erase all traces. Nonetheless, the only time “crazy partying” photographs will face any danger of being exposed will be if they are posted in areas of websites that are not password protected (just like the current system of content indexing).

Similar image search is the first step toward probably the biggest government contract a private company will ever receive. I am sure that one of CIA’s investment companies has already provided a lot of capital to Google, but it was covert investing. This time Google stands a chance to receive open contracts to provide image searching services to all levels of law enforcement worldwide as this industry is the one that stands to gain the most out of such capabilities. Google can provide priority access to their servers and integrate law enforcement databases with such servers and across agencies. Such contracts can possibly a greater source of revenue than the advertising business. Thus, it makes a lot of sense to buy Google shares for long-term investment.

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